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Zip, Jiggle, Whirl: DNA Hits the Screen
By Kate Dalke

Special Issue:
Art & Science
Zip, Jiggle, Whirl:
DNA Hits the Screen
Scientific Artists Capture the World
Medical Illustration Starts with Dissection
Pastel Proteins

In Drew Berry's movies, DNA comes alive. It jiggles, whirls, and coils. It unzips, and zips itself back together. It screams across the screen, complete with sound effects.

This is a still from the movie titled "DNA Chromosome Wrapping."

Berry is a molecular animator, and he makes colorful short movies of DNA doing what it does naturally inside our cells. The movies are three-dimensional, scientifically accurate and above all, riveting.

Think Lord of the Rings or Spider-Man , but with science instead of super-heroes. Berry uses the same computer software that motion-picture animators use to create Hollywood blockbusters. It's called MAYA.

“Instead of Orcs and goblins, I create cells and make them come alive,” says Berry, who works at the Walter and Eliza Hall Medical Research Institute in Melbourne, Australia.

Most people have not seen Berry's work, but the movies are about to become widely available. The films will be featured in an upcoming five-part documentary television series to be broadcast in Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom.

They will also be on a DVD available from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and posted at DNA Interactive, an educational Web site aimed at teachers and students.

This animation visually explains how the basic double helix structure is formed by deconstructing it.

Berry spent a year developing the movies for an international project to raise awareness of DNA science that coincided with the 50 th anniversary of the discovery of DNA's helical structure. He started with several storyboards for the animation, which are basically rough sketches, but most of the work was done on his computer.

This work begins by downloading into MAYA models of DNA that had been generated using a technique called X-ray crystallography. It is perhaps fitting that this very technique had been used a half century ago to uncover DNA's structure.

Once the models are inside his computer, Berry can move them around as if he were holding them, viewing the DNA molecules from all angles. Then he adds his own Hollywood special effects.

In an animation of chromosomes changing, or “wrapping,” the screen shows a purple rope of DNA twitching. Globs of protein then plunk down, attaching themselves to the DNA rope and tugging it into small coils. Finally, the coils pack together and fold into a chromosomal shape.

—Related Sites —

The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research

• You can also see Berry's work in a DVD called “DNA: The Secret of Life,” forthcoming from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Under Berry's direction, the shape fades into footage of actual chromosomes inside a dividing cell.

Animation wasn't always Berry's passion. He started out as a cell biologist, but eventually grew bored of laboratory work and traded in science all together for marketing and advertising. There was only one problem—he missed the science.

So Berry took a job as an illustrator at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, and started playing around with computer animation in his spare time. This led to a full-time job making educational movies about research at the Institute.

His first animation—which is still one of the most popular—shows the lifecycle of the malaria parasite inside the human body. It illustrates an Institute project in which researchers try to block the parasite in humans by disrupting a parasite gene. This prevents infected human cells from gaining a foothold in the blood stream.

To prepare for the animation, Berry studied photographs of parasites infecting human red blood cells and had many conversations “over lots of cups of coffee” with researchers on the project. He also sent them bits of footage as the animation progresses.

Of course, adds Berry, scientists look for the science behind the animation, but they are only part of the audience. The general public wants to be visually stimulated, but not overwhelmed. And students have to learn what's going on blow-by-blow.

“When you create this sort of animation, you're treading into many worlds,” says Berry. “My goal is to make it visible, watchable, and comprehensive.”

“And it has to be entertaining,” he adds.

Life cycles, like those of the malaria parasite are boring in static diagrams. But animation has the power to bring them to life, on the small screen.

“These are living organisms, and this is the world they live in,” he says.

For a preview of these movies, visit Berry's web site.

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