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TED2014

Janet Iwasa: How animations can help scientists test a hypothesis

March 19, 2014

3D animation can bring scientific hypotheses to life. Molecular biologist (and TED Fellow) Janet Iwasa introduces a new open-source animation software designed just for scientists.

Janet Iwasa - Molecular animator
Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Take a look at this drawing.
00:12
Can you tell what it is?
00:14
I'm a molecular biologist by training,
00:16
and I've seen a lot of these kinds of drawings.
00:18
They're usually referred to as a model figure,
00:21
a drawing that shows how we think
00:24
a cellular or molecular process occurs.
00:26
This particular drawing is of a process
00:28
called clathrin-mediated endocytosis.
00:31
It's a process by which a molecule can get
00:35
from the outside of the cell to the inside
00:38
by getting captured in a bubble or a vesicle
00:40
that then gets internalized by the cell.
00:43
There's a problem with this drawing, though,
00:45
and it's mainly in what it doesn't show.
00:47
From lots of experiments,
00:50
from lots of different scientists,
00:51
we know a lot about what these molecules look like,
00:53
how they move around in the cell,
00:56
and that this is all taking place
00:58
in an incredibly dynamic environment.
01:00
So in collaboration with a clathrin
expert Tomas Kirchhausen,
01:03
we decided to create a new kind of model figure
01:06
that showed all of that.
01:08
So we start outside of the cell.
01:10
Now we're looking inside.
01:12
Clathrin are these three-legged molecules
01:14
that can self-assemble into soccer-ball-like shapes.
01:16
Through connections with a membrane,
01:19
clathrin is able to deform the membrane
01:21
and form this sort of a cup
01:23
that forms this sort of a bubble, or a vesicle,
01:24
that's now capturing some of the proteins
01:27
that were outside of the cell.
01:29
Proteins are coming in now that
basically pinch off this vesicle,
01:30
making it separate from the rest of the membrane,
01:34
and now clathrin is basically done with its job,
01:36
and so proteins are coming in now —
01:39
we've covered them yellow and orange —
01:40
that are responsible for taking
apart this clathrin cage.
01:42
And so all of these proteins
can get basically recycled
01:44
and used all over again.
01:48
These processes are too small to be seen directly,
01:49
even with the best microscopes,
01:53
so animations like this provide a really powerful way
01:54
of visualizing a hypothesis.
01:57
Here's another illustration,
02:00
and this is a drawing of how a researcher might think
02:02
that the HIV virus gets into and out of cells.
02:05
And again, this is a vast oversimplification
02:08
and doesn't begin to show
02:11
what we actually know about these processes.
02:12
You might be surprised to know
02:15
that these simple drawings are the only way
02:17
that most biologists visualize
their molecular hypotheses.
02:20
Why?
02:24
Because creating movies of processes
02:25
as we think they actually occur is really hard.
02:27
I spent months in Hollywood
learning 3D animation software,
02:30
and I spend months on each animation,
02:33
and that's just time that most
researchers can't afford.
02:36
The payoffs can be huge, though.
02:39
Molecular animations are unparalleled
02:41
in their ability to convey a great deal of information
02:44
to broad audiences with extreme accuracy.
02:47
And I'm working on a new project now
02:51
called "The Science of HIV"
02:52
where I'll be animating the entire life cycle
02:54
of the HIV virus as accurately as possible
02:56
and all in molecular detail.
02:59
The animation will feature data
03:01
from thousands of researchers
collected over decades,
03:03
data on what this virus looks like,
03:06
how it's able to infect cells in our body,
03:09
and how therapeutics are
helping to combat infection.
03:12
Over the years, I found that animations
03:16
aren't just useful for communicating an idea,
03:19
but they're also really useful
03:21
for exploring a hypothesis.
03:23
Biologists for the most part are
still using a paper and pencil
03:25
to visualize the processes they study,
03:28
and with the data we have now,
that's just not good enough anymore.
03:31
The process of creating an animation
03:34
can act as a catalyst that allows researchers
03:37
to crystalize and refine their own ideas.
03:39
One researcher I worked with
03:42
who works on the molecular mechanisms
03:44
of neurodegenerative diseases
03:46
came up with experiments that were related
03:48
directly to the animation that
she and I worked on together,
03:50
and in this way, animation can
feed back into the research process.
03:53
I believe that animation can change biology.
03:57
It can change the way that we
communicate with one another,
03:59
how we explore our data
04:02
and how we teach our students.
04:04
But for that change to happen,
04:05
we need more researchers creating animations,
04:06
and toward that end, I brought together a team
04:10
of biologists, animators and programmers
04:12
to create a new, free, open-source software —
04:15
we call it Molecular Flipbook —
04:18
that's created just for biologists
04:20
just to create molecular animations.
04:22
From our testing, we've found
that it only takes 15 minutes
04:25
for a biologist who has never
touched animation software before
04:29
to create her first molecular animation
04:32
of her own hypothesis.
04:35
We're also building an online database
04:37
where anyone can view, download and contribute
04:39
their own animations.
04:42
We're really excited to announce
04:43
that the beta version of the molecular animation
04:45
software toolkit will be available for download today.
04:48
We are really excited to see
what biologists will create with it
04:52
and what new insights they're able to gain
04:55
from finally being able to animate
04:57
their own model figures.
04:58
Thank you.
05:00
(Applause)
05:02

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Janet Iwasa - Molecular animator


Why you should listen
While we know a lot about molecular processes, they can’t be observed directly, and scientists have to rely on simple, two-dimensional drawings to depict complex hypotheses. That is, they did until now. Janet Iwasa’s colorful and action-packed 3D animations bring scientific hypotheses to life, showing how we think molecules look, move and interact. Not only is molecular animation a powerful way to illustrate ideas and convey information to general audiences, it’s also a powerful tools for inspiring new research. However, 3D molecular animation using commercial software requires skill and time, so Iwasa has created a simpler 3D animation software tool for biologists, allowing researchers to intuitively and quickly model molecular hypotheses. In 2014, she launched the beta of her new free, open-source animation software, Molecular Flipbook, which allows biologists to create molecular animations of their own hypotheses in just 15 minutes.
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