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Computing Images

Scientists Develop Sixth Sense
Emily Carlson
Posted April 2007

A scientist manipulates plastic models of two proteins while the computer tracks and displays their electrostatic properties, shown here as red and blue clouds. Arthur Olson
A scientist manipulates plastic models of two proteins while the computer tracks and displays their electrostatic properties, shown here as red and blue clouds.
Credit: Arthur Olson

Thanks to a high-tech tool, scientists just regained their "sixth sense."

Before you think of a certain flick starring Bruce Willis, think about feeling your muscles flex as you push a box across carpet or plunging forward as your car suddenly stops. These physical responses to external cues are what many experts consider the sixth type of sensory experience.

Some scientists lost this sense in the computer age. They no longer used physical models of biological molecules, like proteins or DNA, to see how they fit together. Instead, they used computer-generated models.

"Many scientists stopped working with physical models altogether," says Arthur Olson, a structural molecular biologist. "The nature of spatial perception changes and the kind of understanding you get from interacting with your surroundings were lost when computer graphics took over."

Exclamation iconPick up a nearby object. Rotate it so you see all its sides. Does it feel heavy? What about cold? Smooth? How would you determine these qualities if you only saw the object on a computer screen?

Olson and his team at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, have developed a tool that allows them to do both: physically manipulate a model of a biological molecule while watching its chemical and biophysical properties change on a computer screen. Olson says combining the two experiences will let researchers approach and understand biological problems in new ways.

The scientists use special printers that generate plastic or plaster 3-D shapes as easily as other printers produce 2-D pictures. As Olson and others hold and interact with the models, a camera records a close-up shot of the models in motion. A computer program then superimposes graphics, like the arrangement of atoms or the energy between modeled molecules.

Olson combines the model and computer graphics into one image that allows him to study all the different facets of the biological molecule. Olson hopes that one day his interface could double as a video game that lets students explore and play at the molecular level.

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This page last reviewed on April 22, 2011