For the past seven years, bioinformatics researcher Dmitry Korkin has started his bioinformatics class by assigning...Read Story
Translating Science into Art
In early 2020 the genome of the virus that causes COVID-19 was released to the world by scientists in China. For Dmitry Korkin, professor of computer science and director of the university’s Bioinformatics and Computational Biology Program, it was a moment for which he’d been preparing for several years. With expertise in using molecular modeling, structural bioinformatics, biological data mining, and machine learning to study the molecular mechanisms that underlie such infectious and genetic disorders as cancer, diabetes, autism, and pandemic flu, he had the knowledge and the digital tools to transform that raw data into something supremely useful.
Working with a team of graduate students, he used bioinformatics and molecular modeling to reconstruct the 3D structure of the virus’s major proteins and their interactions with human proteins—what he calls a structural 3D roadmap of the new coronavirus. He quickly shared his models with the world and published more details about their creation in the journal Viruses. The article has since been cited more than 150 times.
“We’re confident that our data and visual models could provide the guidance for experimental scientists worldwide who are working feverishly to address this pandemic,” Korkin said at the time, noting that they could “help experimental scientists in their deciphering of the molecular mechanisms implicated in infection by the new coronavirus as well as in vaccine development and antiviral drug discovery.”
The sculpture represents one of the deadliest enemies of humankind and makes us realize how vulnerable and fragile—as glass—we, as humans, still are.
— Dmitry Korkin
It turns out that scientists were not the only ones who found the models intriguing. Scottish artist Angela Palmer, whose sculptures can be found in the permanent collections of several major museums and institutions worldwide—including the Smithsonian and the Scottish National Gallery—decided to create a new work based on Korkin’s data, which plots the spatial relationships of 60 million atoms. Palmer translated this complex data set into 28 cross sections hand-engraved onto large sheets of glass. Stacked together vertically, they form a three-dimensional representation of SARS-CoV-2, the COVID-19 virus, that is eight million times the size of the actual virus.
The sculpture was on display during the spring and summer of 2021 at Oxford University Museum of Natural History in the UK in an exhibit titled 2020: The Sphere that Changed the World. Sarah Gilbert, lead developer of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, unveiled the work. The sculpture will find a permanent home at the Science Museum in London.
When I saw the virus in its entirety for the first time, suspended in its glass chamber, I was taken aback by its beauty.Angela Palmer
‘When I saw the virus in its entirety for the first time, suspended in its glass chamber, I was taken aback by its beauty,” Palmer says. “It was totally unexpected. It seemed in direct contradiction to the nature of this menace that has terrorized us all and continues to do so. It was hauntingly beautiful, paradoxically so. I found it strangely transfixing and mesmerizing: the invisible enemy, as we know it, was suddenly rendered tangible, trapped, while the whole of mankind is trapped by it.”
Says Korkin, “The sculpture represents one of the deadliest enemies of humankind and makes us realize how vulnerable and fragile—as glass—we, as humans, still are. But I think it carries another powerful message: that we can understand, fight, and eventually conquer such an enemy with science.”