Art in the molecular world: the MoleculArt

One of my favorite book: « the Machinery of Life » is a very nice overview of molecular biology. D. S. Goodsell presents a journey in the nano world: It is a very good introduction for non-specialist and is also very interesting for more experienced people. Furthermore, the book contains plenty of wonderful illustrations (this book is also available in french). I advise you to have a look to the D. S. Goodsell website where you can see more astonishing drawings and pictures.

Machinery of Life

VMD is a molecular viewer used by a huge number of researchers. When you particularly know well this program it is possible to perform such nice pictures as molecular vesicles rendered by A. Kohlmeyer (see pictures here)

Vesicle pictures made by Axel Kohlmeyer

It is possible to use some programs in post-process to enhance pictures obtained with VMD. For example, Raster3D can be useful; it is also possible to use PoV-Ray to perform really pretty images. Here, O. Beckstein performed a fascinating picture of nicotinic acethylcholine receptor in which water density are depicted by a sort of crystal representation.

nicotinic acethylcholine receptor picture made by Oliver Beckstein

An interesting website is Bang Wong’s website ( I had the chance to see Bang Wong talk at VizBi 2010 conference and it was a really instructive talk on how to communicate Science visually (video available here). Presented bellow a very new way to present your phylogenetic trees as a mobile.

Bang Wong Website
Phylogenetic mobile of sequenced mammals performed by Bang Wong

ProteinShader is a program freely available (see here). The goal of this program is to create illustrative rendering that can be created by artists using pen and ink (see, for example, « Computer-generated pen-and-ink illustration » by G. Winkenbach and H.D. Salesin or see also « Computer-generated pen-and-ink illustration of trees » by O. Deussen and T. Strothotte -  for persons that have no subscription to Portal these articles are quite easy to find using Google...). More information on ProteinShader on BMC Structural Biology (see here).

On left, image created using ProteinShader. On right, illustrative rendering of a skull from an old book (to compare).

A work that I really appreciate is done by Greg Cipriano. During his PhD he designed a nice algorithm to abstract macromolecular surface (see the dedicated webpage here). Furthermore, since recently, it is possible to play with this Surface Abstraction using the website GRAPE. More information on this website on Nucleic Acids Research article (see here).

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The paper published recently in the Journal Computer Graphics Forum is a mix between QuteMol and ProteinShader (see just before) for the visualization. M. Van der Zwan et al. have also defined smooth transition between different representations as VdW, Ball & Stick or Ribbons. More information here.

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Protein rendered with the illustrative structural abstraction

It is difficult to speak about MoleculArt without talking about works developed in different labs using professional graphics programs such as Maya, Cinema 4D or Blender. A recent paper written by Graham T Johnson et al. have been published in the journal Structure (see paper here). Authors have developed a program, called ePMV to launch molecular software (ie PMV) in professional 3D animation software (as those cited in the beginning of this paragraph): it can facilitate the use of professional 3D animation software to render molecular systems. As a result, it is possible to create really nice images as the cover of the Structure journal.

Cover of Structure journal (Vol. 19, Issue 3) created by Graham Johnson & Ludovic Autin with the ePMV program

This idea was applied for a long time by Gaël McGill to perform molecular movies and figures. A dedicated website, called MolecularMovies, is dedicated to cell and molecular animation.

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The SciVis Unit in Italy, leaded by Monica Zoppè, also performs really nice images using the program Blender (as presented bellow).

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Image taken from the gallery of SciVis unit.

Janet Iwasa, Lecturer in Molecular Visualization at Harvard Medical School, is also a freelance scientific illustrator. She performed really beautiful images such as the one presented bellow.

Image taken from the onemicron website.

A very nice image from the SciVis Unit in Italy, leaded by Monica Zoppè, was selected for the final gallery of the EMBO contest 2012 (see the image hereafter). More beautiful images on the EMBO contest website.


More and more american universities ask talented illustrators to create pieces of art to beautify their buildings. A perfect example is the work of Alison Stephen on the biology building walls at James Madison University (JMU). This wonderful triptyque was performed with the help of Pr Jonathan Monroe who has rendered the DNA structure using the UCSF Chimera package. More detail about this work here.

A three-story mural for the Biology building at James Madison University made by Alison Stephen.

These exploded diagrams of mathematical surfaces are really beautiful. More info here.