They are the building blocks of life – and their extraordinary structures have inspired these striking artworks from students in Cambridge and beyond.
Each year, art students are invited to create pieces based on the Protein Data Bank in Europe (PDBe) – and this year’s work has gone on display in a brilliant virtual exhibition.
You can see it here and follow the guided tour, or scroll around yourself to view any works you would like to see. Click on one for more detail.
“It started six years ago with one student and it has grown to eight schools, including one international school in Australia.
“We now have around 300 school students who participate,” explains Deepti Gupta, PDBe scientific database curator at EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute, based on the Wellcome Genome Campus.
“They are asked to create artworks by looking into the protein structures on the Protein Data Bank. We provide hands-on training on how to explore it and visualise the proteins in 3D.
“They do their background research and choose their proteins of interest and create the artwork as part of their curriculum.
“We don’t provide any prescription – it is up to them what they want to create. We have had paintings, sculpture, textiles and last year we had a musical piece. We’ve even had a Lego piece based on haemoglobin.”
The exhibition was held virtually last year during the pandemic and attracted global interest.
“We can reach a wider audience around the globe and we had people joining us across Europe and from Mexico. I think every year we will have a virtual exhibition,” said Deepti.
The PDBe is part of the Worldwide Protein Data Bank, a repository of more than 150,000 protein structures, solved using technologies such as X-ray crystallography or electron microscopy. It is used by scientists around the world.
“During the pandemic, our role was really important because scientists were solving structures that we were putting out into the public so that drugs, antibodies or vaccines could be developed quickly. Our role is making these structures useful for human health, drug development and R&D,” explains Deepti.
The database is not, however, a place art students would typically go looking for inspiration.
“They may never have thought of bringing science into creating the art. When they see the beauty of proteins visually it strikes them. We know students have even gone on to choose careers based on science. One of them took up scientific illustrations.”
Jessica Hebden, head of art at The Leys School in Cambridge, said: “The PDB Art project has allowed pupils to visit the Genome Campus and talk to fantastic scientists about the possibility of using art to visualise the amazing qualities and structures of proteins. It has also expanded the boundaries where art and science meet. Our course is certainly richer for the experience.”
Ben Keeble, head of art and design and sixth form tutor at The Perse Upper School in Cambridge, agreed.
“The PDBe art and science project has become integral to our Year 9 teaching at the Perse. Students relish the chance to apply their scientific understanding alongside creative visualisation techniques in their art lessons, exploring a range of techniques through printmaking, painting and ceramics.
“Students begin to realise the similarities in approaches by scientists and artists in terms of experimentation, methodology and practice.
“This year we have plans to develop techniques into glass fusing and slumping and three dimensional modelling in wire. We hope to bring back visits to the campus so that students get a chance to see science in action.”
One Perse student added: “It was really inspiring that subjects I would deem completely different were linked together in a piece of art.”
Also taking part this year is Saffron Walden County High School, where Jason Ion said: “As an art teacher, being able to work on a project for a cutting edge scientific research project like the PDBe is a wonderful opportunity.
“It brings our students into contact with an area of specialist illustration that might inspire several to explore for a future career opportunity. It allows us to make links between art and science that are meaningful and very diverse in scope too.
“The students have loved exploring the range of specialist proteins and their biological effects.
“The mixture of microscopic imagery, diagrams, coding and subject photography involved has given all the students many options to try to make sense of the data in a visually exciting and meaningful way.”
Also taking part this year are Thomas Gainsborough, in Sudbury, and Viewbank College in Melbourne, Australia.
The exhibition, put together with the help of the art societies CANTAB and GRANTA, can also be viewed at bit.ly/PDBart2021.
Meanwhile, a major advance in our understanding of the human proteome – the complete set of human protein structures – was announced in July.
DeepMind, the Google-owned artificial intelligence lab, used its AI programme AlphaFold and teamed up with EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute to predict many of the structures that had not yet been experimentally solved.
“The human proteome has lots of proteins not solved yet and this has been a mystery for structural biologists,” explained Deepti.
“We know what the human genome is like, and we can decipher the protein sequence from the human genome. But the mystery is in knowing the 3D shape of the structures.
“For many, many years, it has been a challenge for scientists to understand the shape of the proteins. Once you know that, you can design drugs.”
The programme has enabled predictions of 365,000 protein structures that were previously unknown, giving researchers great insight.
It does not replace the Protein Data Bank, however, which remains the gold standard of experimentally-proven protein structures.
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