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3-D mitochondria blockbuster captivates students

11/19/2010
Natalie Goode-Henry

Science animators are taking a page from Hollywood blockbusters to help students understand how biological cells function.

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Using the same software employed to create Hollywood movies, Harvard University’s BioVisions Project and XVIVO scientific animation have released a new educational animation that simulates mitochondrial metabolism. A blockbuster success, the animation underlines the promise of using dynamic visualizations to aid science education.

“Powering the Cell: Mitochondria” is a dynamic four-minute 3-D animation designed to help students understand the world inside mitochondria, the organelle that creates energy for eukaryotic cells in the form of adenosine triphosphates (ATP). “The production of ATP is a fundamental process in all living organisms, and here we show it in the context of an animal cell’s mitochondria,” said Robert Lue, founder of BioVisions and director of life science education at Harvard. “It is the combination of many proteins specifically arranged within mitochondria that allow this amazing process to occur, so we wanted to visualize a more complete picture.”

“Powering the Cell: Mitochondria” is a dynamic four-minute 3-D animation designed to help students understand the world inside mitochondria, the organelle that creates energy for eukaryotic cells in the form of adenosine triphosphates (ATP). Source: YouTube

For several months, Lue worked with Alain Viel, director of undergraduate research at Harvard, compiling information and developing a compelling storyboard before collaborating with XVIVO to create the animation. “There is an enormous amount of data and primary literature behind each animation,” said Lue. To create the intricate animation, the XVIVO team used Newtek’s Lightwave 3D software, the same software used to produce big-budget Hollywood movie productions such as 2009’s science fiction epic Avatar.

The animation is the second of a series of cell biology animations by BioVisions, which brings animators, scientists, and college students together to produce multimedia projects related to cellular processes. The Howard Hughes Institute funded the program. The project’s first animation, “Inner Life of the Cell,” highlighted a diverse range of molecular mechanisms as it followed white blood cells traveling through the human body.

Released in 2006, the animators only intended the first animation to be used in Harvard undergraduate biology classes. However, the animation went viral after being recognized by the SIGGRAPH Electronic Theater, an online curated collection of computer animation. Students, teachers, and scientists began writing letters asking BioVisions and XVIVO to produce another animation.

According to a survey of schools and students across the country, 68% of schools surveyed said that they used the animation in their classrooms. More than 72% of students rated the animation as “highly useful” in comprehending cellular processes, and more than 90% rated the animation as “greatly increasing” their interest in the subject.

While these numbers indicate that science educators are interested in science animation as visual aids in the classroom, Lue is quick to report that scientists also are becoming more interested in the use of animation to teach others about their work. “Ten years ago, I recall a minority of scientist colleagues expressing the concern that showing complex visual models to students might be too flashy and might imprint them with visual representations that are not true simulations,” said Lue. “Today, I rarely hear that concern raised, and I have scientist colleagues clamoring for us to work with them on visualizations of their pet process.”

BioVisions and XVIVO plan to release their next animation, which will examine kinesin motor proteins, in fall 2011.

To view condensed versions of the animations please visit, http://multimedia.mcb.harvard.edu