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A scientist’s paintings reveal the incredible beauty of the living cell

By Erik Olsen
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

David Goodsell is not a household name, but if you’ve ever spent time perusing a cellular biology textbook, there’s a good chance you’ve come across his work.

Goodsell is one of the world’s foremost molecular artists. His gorgeous, intricate watercolor paintings showing the inner workings of cells are a staple of the biological sciences.

For some science students, their first glimpse inside a cell comes from his images. Cell biologists use them to foster their sense of how cells are organized, how crowded they are, and to visualize the way that thousands of various proteins glob together to perform functions that result in life itself. Medicinal chemists use them to see how various receptors are organized in the effort to design new drugs. And, for everyone else, they’re just plain beautiful.

David Goodsell
Ebola virus

Goodsell is also a scientist; he is an associate professor of molecular biology at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego where he works with a team of other scientists to better understand cellular structures and processes. But it’s for his work as an artist that he’s best known. All of his paintings are based on images taken directly from existing scientific literature.

“There’s an amazing infrastructure in cells that makes sure everything is in the right place at the right time,” he says.

His primary resource is the Protein Data Bank, a massive, publicly-available online repository of hundreds of thousands of protein structures that have been discovered over the last several decades by scientists around the world. Nearly every protein in the human body that has been deconstructed can be accessed there. Goodsell gathers them together and, using the best available science, integrates them into a whole structure to reveal the inner world of viruses, bacteria and human cells.

David Goodsell
Mycoplasma mycoides

“What I’m trying to do is create a picture that would be what you would see if you took a portion of the cell and blew it up to where you could see the molecules,” he explains.

Since the structures he paints are smaller than the wavelength of light, and therefore invisible to a normal microscope, he uses what a fellow scientist once termed an “intuitive palette” to create an almost joyful array of color that shows how cells are organized and how they function. While the paintings are clearly art, he resists calling them that. He says they are meant to be viewed through the prism of science. ”My goal with these pictures,” he says, “is always to be as scientifically accurate as possible.” 

David Goodsell
Flu virus

While his medium has long been watercolors, he and his team recently received a $2.3 million grant to develop new methods for modeling the molecular structure of entire cells in 3D. Goodsell says the effort could help other scientists gain the kind of intuition that could lead to breakthroughs in biological science, and even lead to new drug therapies for treating disease.

The effort will move him away from watercolor and into the realm of computer graphics, where a lot of work is already being done by molecular animators like Drew Berry.

Goodsell’s work has won its share of accolades. For example, in 2016, he was the overall winner of the prestigious Wellcome Image Awards for his painting of the Ebola virus.

“I’ve always felt the need to create pictures, and it’s been a wonderful gift that I can find a way to combine my interest in science with the ability to create something,” he says.

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