Superman is super strong, super fast and generally super fly. But in a comic book, he's also super flat, leaving many of his superhero feats up to your imagination. But when the comic book turns cinematic, Superman truly comes alive.
Sometimes scientists only get to see the comic book view of biology: Experimental data gives researchers just snapshots of what a biological process looks like at a specific time. So, computational biologist Kevin Sanbonmatsu at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico is bringing those processes to life.
Sanbonmatsu uses high-performance computers to create movies of a tiny molecular machine present in every living organism. This machine—called the ribosome—builds proteins from the genetic instructions encoded in DNA. Interested in understanding the origin of life, Sanbonmatsu says he studies the ribosome because "it may be the oldest artifact in the cell."
But there's more to it than curiosity. Sanbonmatsu also says that about half of all antibiotics used to treat bacterial infections target the ribosome, meaning that a better understanding of this biological machine could lead to super-strong drugs.
To make his movies, Sanbonmatsu starts with experimental data, like the structure of a ribosome in a particular instance, and generates a storyboard of sorts. Hundreds of connected computer processors—or a supercomputer—then turn the snapshots into an entire movie filled with information scientists couldn't otherwise see or even imagine.
"You can look at static structures of the ribosome," says Sanbonmatsu, "but the only way to watch it in motion is the supercomputer simulation."
His team has created one of the largest biological simulations ever, bringing new life to characters in the old story of protein synthesis.