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Cool Videos: HIV in Action

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

HIV Video

There aren’t too many molecular biologists who have spent a 3-month stint in Hollywood. But Janet Iwasa is not your average molecular biologist. After earning her PhD in 2006, she took a break from the lab to take a crash course in animation techniques at the Gnomon School of Visual Effects.

While her classmates produced lots of cool footage worthy of the silver screen, Iwasa wanted to learn how to depict in colorful 3D action, some of the complex molecular processes that are so difficult to convey using static 2D illustration. Among her creations is this 2-minute, rough-draft animation showing how the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) recognizes and infects a type of immune cell known as a T cell.

The video is part of Iwasa’s “Science of HIV” project, which aims to depict the entire life cycle of the virus in a series of animated videos. To make this happen, Iwasa is working in collaboration with members of the Structural Biology of Cellular Host Elements in Egress, Trafficking, and Assembly of HIV (CHEETAH) consortium at the University of Utah and the National Institute for General Medical Sciences’ Specialized Centers for HIV/AIDS-Related Structural Biology.

HIV infection model
Caption: Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Outer membrane (green) is dotted with proteins (red, blue) essential for recognizing and fusing with host cells. Inside are structural proteins and enzymes (purple). Capsid (orange) houses RNA (blue) that enables HIV to replicate in host cells, along with protective proteins (red).
Credit: Janet Iwasa, University of Utah

Her ultimate goal is to make dynamic 3D animation technology accessible to more researchers and enable them to model their scientific area of interest with greater accuracy and creativity. In fact, Iwasa is now working with biologists, computer programmers, and animators to develop free software called Molecular Flipbook, which will teach researchers how to animate their favorite molecules in just 15 minutes. It’s an interesting tool that should help scientists visualize their research problems in new ways and form more dynamic hypotheses.

In closing, I’d like to highlight a still image pulled from one of Iwasa’s amazing animations. This beautifully informative piece was among the scientific images that took top honors in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology’s 2014 BioArt competition. My compliments to the artist—and to the scientist!


Janet Iwasa, University of Utah, Salt Lake City

Video: How Animations Can Help Scientists Test a Hypothesis, Janet Iwasa, TED, March 2014

Science of HIV

CHEETAH, University of Utah

BioArt, Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology

Specialized Centers for HIV/AIDS-Related Structural Biology, National Institute of General Medical Sciences, NIH

NIH support: National Institute of General Medical Sciences


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