August 2011

David Goodsell: The master of mol art

Fig. 3. Neuromuscular synapse. The acetylcholine-laden vesicles are carrying and releasing the neurotransmitter into the synaptic cleft. A few of the acetylcholine molecules bind to receptors on the muscle cell. The cleft itself is packed with many elongated proteins including laminin, collagen, perlecan and flower-like acetylcholinesterase molecules serving to render inactive the neurotransmitter. Courtesy of D.S. Goodsell.

Paintings can tell great stories. Goodsell often uses his illustrations to describe a biological process vividly. His painting of the neuromuscular synapse, for example, shows the molecular action of the entire synaptic cycle (Fig. 3). An expert in vesicular trafficking, structural biologist Frederick Hughson of Princeton University concludes, "David's work is amazing!"

Science outreach

If you visit the Protein Data Bank website, you will not miss the "Molecule of the Month" column posted on the home page. Every month for more than a decade, David Goodsell has been contributing an illustration and a concise description of a featured biological macromolecule, such as clathrin (Fig. 4). Most of the structural images are created using a computer program that Goodsell developed as a postdoctoral fellow. With more than 60,000 structures currently deposited in the PDB, Goodsell has plenty of work to do.

Usually, figures appearing in original scientific publications must strictly represent the data, and thus very little image manipulation is allowed. However, artistic freedom is essential for a comprehensible and memorable illustration used for educational purposes (3), and several of Goodsell's images can be found in classic textbooks, such as "Molecular Biology of the Cell." In addition, Goodsell himself has written and illustrated a number of books, including "The Machinery of Life," "Our Molecular Nature: The Body's Motors, Machines and Messages" and "Bionanotechnology: Lessons from Nature."

Fig. 4. Clathrin (April 2007 Molecule of the Month). A clathrin cage composed of 36 symmetrical three-legged components termed triskelions (single subunit is highlighted in green). The assembly shown here represents the second smallest possible cage structure. A hemoglobin molecule (red) is included for comparison. Courtesy of D.S. Goodsell.

Illustrations by Goodsell are making a great impact on science education. Microbiologist David Rudner at Harvard Medical School uses Goodsell's images in his molecular biology of bacteria course and finds them "incredibly instructive – both mnemonic and predictive… They stimulate general discussion and foster hypotheses." Alice Ting, a professor at MIT, also uses Goodsell pictures for teaching and in her seminars to illustrate how crowded and complex the interior of the cell is. "Other illustrations don't convey this nearly as well as the Goodsell drawings," she notes.

Goodsell recently has contributed a series of articles to the journal Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education. In each paper, he describes in great detail the scientific background behind the illustrations in the second edition of "The Machinery of Life." BAMBED editors Judith and Donald Voet agree that Goodsell's work provides "enormous aid to the teaching and learning of biochemistry and molecular biology" (4).

As Goodsell says, his artwork is meant to give any reader "a pictorial overview of the molecules that orchestrate the process of life." For the scientist, he hopes that his work "will continue to provide a touchstone for intuition" (5).


1. Nogales, E. (2010) My dream of a fantastic voyage to see the inner workings of a cell. Mol. Biol. Cell. 21, 3815.
2. Goodsell, D.S. (2005) Visual methods from atoms to cells. Structure 13, 347 – 354.
3. Goodsell, D.S., and Johnson, G.T. (2007) Filling in the gaps: artistic license in education and outreach. PLoS Biol. 5, e308.
4. Voet, J.G., and Voet, D. (2009) Communication through illustration: The work of David Goodsell. Biochem. Mol. Biol. Educ. 37, 203.
5. Goodsell, D.S. (2009) The Machinery of Life. 2nd ed. Springer.

Sergei Shikov ( is a freelance science writer in Boston, Mass.


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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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