Does This Membrane Clash With My RNA?

by Jennifer Frazer on September 17, 2009

Does this membrane clash with my chromatin? Image courtesy CDC/ Erskine. L. Palmer, Ph.D.; M. L. Martin

A membrane, some proteins, and 8 segments of RNA: all there is to influenza. A false color transmission electrion micrograph of the influenza virus. Image courtesy CDC/ Erskine. L. Palmer, Ph.D.; M. L. Martin

Until 1933, it was impossible to see a virus. Oh, we knew they were out there. But no one had the faintest clue what they looked like. 1933 marked the year transmission electron microscopy finally achieved resolutions finer than light microscopes were capable of and made it possible to finally glimpse the agents that had mottled tobacco leaves, streaked tulip petals, scarred the faces and bodies of millions, or paralyzed, maimed, and killed millions more.

So what’s with the doofy colors? Yes, in spite of the awesomely awesome resolution that transmission and scanning electron microscopes provide us with, scientists and alarmist pandemic book cover designers can’t seem to resist painting them with gaudy colors (see above). OK, I admit the colors do seem to spice up the images. But this isn’t even a case of colorizing something that was colorful to start with — viruses are quite clear. So what a revelation to see a glass artist team with scientists to produce anatomically correct transparent glass sculptures of viruses and other wee animalcules. That’s exactly what British artist Luke Jerram has done, and his creations are truly illuminating.

Anacardium occidentale -- hard to believe, cashews actually *do* grow on trees.

It's hard to believe, but cashews actually *do* grow on trees. A glass model of Anacardium occidentale, the cashew tree, on display in the Harvard Glass Flower Collection. Model by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka.

I must say that his models remind me very much of the intricate glass 19th century models of fungi, invertebrates, and plants I discovered in my college days in dusty corners of Cornell and Harvard, many of which were created by the father and son team of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka in Dresden, Germany from the 1880s to 1930s. They definitely get my vote for having the C00Lest Jobs EVAR. Intended as teaching aids, they date from a time when color photographs were unheard of and microscopes were a bit primitive. The colored glass models were able to show fine detail far better than either an engraved image or tiny eyepiece could, they did so in 3D, and as the Harvard people like to point out, glass flowers bloom year round. It’s nice to see that everything old is new again.

Viral family trees

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Captain Skellett September 23, 2009 at 9:49 pm

I blogged about this too, and found it from Carl Zimmer at the Loom. I think the sculptures are stunning, and it was interesting to hear the artist wonder about the effect colour choice has on the way we think about viruses.

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