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Visualize the invisible | Natural microbiology

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Scientific illustrations help communicate complex information and data across disciplines. The work of scientific animators and illustrators is therefore a valuable element of effective scientific communication, especially for microbiology, because the majority of the organisms studied cannot be seen with the naked eye.

From the moment we open our eyes in the morning to the moment we fall asleep, visual stimuli guide us through the day. We watch the news, we see road signs and we read messages on our phones. Much of what we see involves illustrations, photographs, and videos that educate us on a specific topic. Visual information uses color, shape, space, and even movement to convey a message. For some, these visual aids help in the formation of memories, as the cognitive process is generally more efficient when processing static or moving visual information compared to plain text.

This is especially relevant when it comes to science. Fields that focus on the study of the micro-, nano- or picometric world, in which structures and organisms are invisible to the naked eye, rely on images to convey findings and messages. Two examples are microbiology and molecular and cellular biology. We can read about the makeup of a virus, the complex structure of a protein, or the process of DNA replication, but without visual representation, it is difficult to fully understand these complex systems. Fortunately, thanks to advances in technology, scientists can use a variety of tools to help visualize the makeup and function of microscopic elements. Fluorescence microscopy can allow us to see, for example, bacteria infecting a mammalian cell, while electron microscopy can generate high-resolution images of a cell’s ultrastructure. To better understand the atomic structure of molecules and cells, complex techniques such as X-ray diffraction, nuclear magnetic resonance, or cryoelectron microscopy can be used. These techniques continue to provide unprecedented information about the appearance of microbes and their components, but they require specific expertise and are still somewhat limited to a small audience, especially since such images can be relatively ineffective for communicate information to non-experts and the general public. .

This is where scientific animation and illustration come in. These disciplines bring together complex and specialized scientific information and combine it with more abstract concepts like artistic beauty and composition. This results in an aesthetically engaging and widely understandable figure.

Art and science, especially microbiology, have long gone hand in hand. An article by Frédéric Barras (Barras, F. About. Microbiole. Representing. 11, 29-34 (2019)) summarized the link between microbiology and art throughout history. Most recently, Graham Johnson animation from 1999 shows how the motor protein kinesin walks along a protofilament of a microtubule, Michèle Banks creates watercolor collages and petri dish paintings using an interesting artistic process (Jermy, A. Nat Microbiol. 1, 15013 (2016)) involving medieval plague novels and experimenting with color palettes, David Goodsell created many iconic watercolor images, and Digizyme developed ‘molecular landscape‘images by integrating structural and biochemical data to show the complex complexity of living cells, which are just a few examples. These visualizations are particularly effective for non-specialized audiences. They provide a gateway to the cellular world, allowing something that seemed unintelligible to become more tangible. The ultimate goal of animation and illustration is effective communication – to take something complex and make it accessible, visually appealing, and as close to an approximation of reality as possible to capture a large audience.

At this point, you might be wondering who are the people behind the science animations and illustrations? Are they illustrators or scientists? Well the answer is they both are. Usually, science illustrators and animators are professionals who have some level of scientific knowledge that complements their artistic design skills. They can be scientists who have learned the art or artists with a deep interest in science. In any case, they have a combined passion for both disciplines. They research and read extensively on the scientific subject they wish to illustrate and even work side-by-side with scientists to ensure accuracy, while also applying an artistic license to create an illustration that is both accurate and aesthetic.

Throughout history, many renowned scientists have adopted illustration as a means of developing their research questions, including Dutch microbiologist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, who first drew “animalcules” in the 17th century; Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal, who has created beautiful illustrations of neurons; German biologist Ernst Haeckle, whose detailed illustrations of 20th century living things are still a source of inspiration and astonishment; and the generally overlooked Maria Sibylla Merian and other female scientists who drew illustrations in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

In this issue of Natural microbiology, three contemporary scientific illustrators and animators share their experiences of bringing art and science closer together, and the different career paths available in scientific visualization. Biotechnologist Thom leach tells us how he went from the bench to the illustration workshop; Janet Iwasa, molecular biologist, assistant professor and head of The animation laboratory at the University of Utah, tells us how their facilitation team helps scientists bring their hypothesis to life; and artist Beth anderson guides us throughout his career as scientific facilitator and its collaborations with research institutes and editorial editors. These are just a few representative examples of the vast pool of talented science illustrators. Each illustrator uses a different combination of tools and resources, whether digital and / or traditional drawing techniques, 2D and / or 3D illustrations, or animation software, and each has their own unique style. . What they have in common is a passion and a commitment to communicate science in the best possible way. Their dedication and work should encourage scientists to improve communication with their peers and the general public. The emergence of SARS-CoV-2 has demonstrated the value of communicating timely scientific findings to the general public in a clear and understandable manner to avoid misunderstandings or the introduction of misconceptions not based on scientific data.

Although scientific visualization is often not a priority in academic research, it is a key aspect of communicating new scientific findings to academic and non-academic audiences. When done correctly, pictures and animations allow a more effective conceptual assimilation of information than words. Therefore, collaboration between researchers and illustrators is crucial for effective communication of science. It is therefore our – and your – responsibility as scientists to use the various communication channels effectively and to commit to improving visualization at all times, but especially when microbiology is of paramount importance. public.

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Visualize the invisible.
Nat Microbiol seven, 1-2 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41564-021-01044-1

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