August 2011

David Goodsell: The master of mol art

Spectacular drawings by David Goodsell showcase scientific knowledge and creativity. 

Fig 1. Cross section of an Escherichia coli. A large flagellar motor (in green) crosses the cell wall, turning the flagellum. The cytoplasmic area is colored blue and purple. The large magenta molecules are ribosomes, and the L-shaped maroon molecules are tRNA. The nucleoid region is shown in yellow and orange. Courtesy of D.S. Goodsell.

Visualization of cells and macromolecules is indispensible for understanding their function. Whether we are looking at the cellular compartments or trying to understand a certain biological process at the molecular level, the power of a visual image is enormous. Direct visual methods such as light and electron microscopy reveal a coarse view of the cellular structure. X-ray crystallography and NMR allow us to get atomic details of the individual molecules. Biochemistry and biophysical methods provide quantitative information about isolated systems. Despite having all these tools and information, we still miss a complete view of a cell on the nanometer scale (1).

David Goodsell of The Scripps Research Institute, an artist by nature and scientist by training, bridges that knowledge gap and takes us into the invisible world of a cell. In his drawings, he beautifully combines scientific information from many different methods with his artistic vision.

Nature and nurture

Goodsell started painting early in his childhood, taught by his grandfather, who was an accomplished artist. In college, Goodsell majored in both chemistry and biology but not in art. His graduate school years (with Richard Dickerson at the University of California, Los Angeles) coincided with the increased use of computers in structural biology. While writing molecular graphics programs to visualize crystal structures, Goodsell became increasingly interested in scientific illustration. His professional interest in molecules gradually intertwined with the artistic desire to paint them. He credits his postdoctoral adviser, Arthur Olson (at Scripps), for creating an atmosphere where Goodsell could develop his skills as both a scientist and an artist.

Fig. 2. Mycoplasma mycoides. DNA is shown in orange, cytoplasmic proteins in blue and pink, ribosomes are purple, and lipoglycan layer is green. Courtesy of D.S. Goodsell.

Artistic style

Goodsell uses watercolor to reveal a dazzling view of the molecular world inside living cells. His drawings usually are printed at a consistent 1,000,000x magnification, which enlarges the objects to visible size. He uses a cross section metaphor, which allows viewing of many molecules in the same image plane (2). This simplicity is somewhat reminiscent of the post-impressionist style of Henri Rousseau. Goodsell draws molecules with flat colors and outlines to emphasize their relative sizes. These artistic choices simplify the view of a bustling intracellular world.

E. coli (Fig. 1) is one of Goodsell's favorite subjects. Knowing a stunning amount of information about this bacterium allows the artist "to show everything that is needed to make a living object." Goodsell likes to use simple color schemes to highlight the function and location of the molecules. Whether he draws a bacterium or a human cell, it is easy to identify compartments by looking at the colors. DNA and nuclear proteins are drawn yellow and orange, ribosomes are shown in magenta, cytoplasmic proteins are shown in blue, and the membranes are colored green. The overall size and shape of the macromolecules are based on atomic coordinates. The relative amount of molecules is derived from biochemical data, and their locations are from electron micrographs.

To appreciate the amount of effort spent on a drawing, one has only to zoom into a recent painting of a Mycoplasma mycoides (Fig. 2). A close look at the elaborate lipoglycan layer alone surely will leave you amazed.


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Good article. Very informative. Perfect for fact hunting!!!


Beautiful job, …thanks for the beauty in deep Zury Dominguez, Venezuela


Great article. Well written. Fun to read. It's good to see a connection between arts and sciences.



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