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28/07/2014

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Colouring the molecular world

Rikke Schmidt Kjærgaard argues for consistency
When we see nano-scale images representing the molecular world, non-specialists may well assume that this is what it really looks like. The shape, the particular elements of the molecule, and the colours often draw and captivate the eye of the observer. But what is it exactly that decides whether a certain part of a protein should be green, red or purple? Does nature really look like this? As the short answer is no, scientists need to take seriously how a simple question of shape and colour can improve the communication of structural biology. 

There is as yet no general consensus on what makes a good image. Consequently, there is no obvious and necessary correlation between the images made for pragmatic and educational purposes in the laboratory, those chosen for posters and conference presentations, those accompanying article submissions, and those to be selected for public engagement.

By comparing structural representations of macromolecules, we are able to trace differences and similarities in shape and colour. For example, the structure of the sodium-potassium pump, a membrane-bound ion pump belonging to the family of P-type ATPases, was published on the front cover of Nature in December 2007.1 Since then, 118 articles have cited the original paper. In these articles, 50 images refer directly to the original visual representation of the structure. However, there is very little consensus in their choice of form and colour. Consequently, it is not easy to compare the structures, and chances for misinterpretation of important data increase.

We need to improve our skills in visual communication, so that our colleagues can understand how images are supposed to be interpreted, and so that the general public can more easily understand the most vital structures of life.

Engaging the public

Working together with designers Rachel Wingfield and Mathias Gmachl, we explored new ways of representing the molecular world by engaging a general audience at this year’s Science Festival in Cambridge.

We invited people to colour a 2.20 x 6 metre mural of a mitochondrial network. Children of all ages and adults engaged in this mitochondrial paint-by-numbers event. The first step was, via a computer test, to find out which colour each visitor preferred. The mural was divided into 300 hexagons. The areas in each hexagonal were coloured according to shades and numbers, leaving the final image of the mitochondrial network represented by a multi-coloured structure.

The aim was to engage the public in our research and get them to explore the science through colours. The mitochondrial mural demonstrated great potential in exploring common ground for science communication, in this case because scientists and participants shared the challenge of finding appropriate colours for the network.

This event was part of a two-year project analysing structural representations of macromolecules in different academic and popular settings. The conclusions of these different approaches to colouring our molecular world will be further developed over the next year by looking at structural representations of other macromolecules essential for life.

Towards a consensus

We would like to suggest a consensus for the choice of colours in structural representation. This would need to take into consideration the limits of technical tools, existing colour practices within particular scientific fields, the effects of colour blindness, as well as which results to communicate and to whom. Consistency would not only save time in the process of making scientific images for various purposes. It would also minimize use of unsuitable colours and optimize visual communication of molecular structures. An agreed representation would also make it simpler to understand the image, and bring us a step closer to engaging a general public.

1 JP Morth, BP Pedersen, MS Toustrup-Jensen, TL-M Sørensen, J Petersen, JP Andersen, B Vilsen, P Nissen, (2007), “Crystal structure of the sodium-potassium pump”. Nature 450 (7172), p. 1043-1049.

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Rikke Schmidt
Rikke Schmidt Kjærgaard is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the MRC Mitochondrial Biology Unit, Cambridge. She is also affiliated to Centre for Membrane Pumps in Cells and Disease (PUMPKIN), Aarhus University
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