Ravishing bacterium

This remarkable digital illustration of the bacterium E. Coli conveys far more information than any microscope image can ever offer. Art and science work beautifully together in the hands of David Goodsell, a molecular biologist renowned for his cellular landscapes.

Even with the best microscope, the molecules inside a cell are too small to see. Goodsell combines the latest information from techniques like X ray crystallography to illustrate what microbes would look like if we could zoom down to the molecular level. 

Image courtesy of david goodsell

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The machinery of life

Zooming into the interior of E. Coli, things start looking distinctly mechanical. The green barrel-shaped structure is a motor that spins the attached whip-like flagellum to create the corkscrew motion that drives the bacterium forward. And it knows where it’s going. A nutrient sensor adjacent to the motor (green; shaped like three pickets in a fence) sniffs out food and steers the bacterium towards the source.

Deeper inside the cell is its protein-producing machinery (purple and blue), and its nucleoid which carries the rope-like DNA (straw-colored) organised by proteins (orange and coral).

Image courtesy of david goodsell

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A deadly enemy

This painting shows the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) which is responsible for the deadly disease AIDS. Shaped like a mummy case, the virus’s purple-coloured capsid carries its genetic code in strands of RNA (lilac). The outer membrane of the virus bristles with red flower-like structures – a protein called GP120, ready to latch on to the next cell the virus will infect.

This virus is under attack from the immune system. Like guided missiles, Y-shaped antibodies (yellow), are homing in on GP120.  But without the help of antiretroviral drugs, it’s a battle the immune system is destined to lose.

Image courtesy of david goodsell

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Life of a poliovirus

Goodsell captures the entire lifecycle of a poliovirus inside a human cell. The story starts at far left, where the pink poliovirus capsule has attached itself to the cell’s surface (green), and is forcing long strands of its RNA inside.

Once inside, these strands are decoded by machines called ribosomes (purple), which produce proteins that in turn, churn out many more copies of viral RNA.

Finally, this material is packaged into multiple new viral capsules (pink, right), ready to spread the infection.

The deadly poliovirus was one human invader that had seemed all but vanquished, but it is on the rise again (see, The year polio won).

Image courtesy of david goodsell