Fragile flu, siliciferous smallpox

A virus has a relatively easy time replicating itself. It's just a matter of hijacking a cell to generate the necessary components and in minutes, the capsid shell proteins self-assemble around a coil of viral genome. But for the glassblowers working with British artist linkurl:Luke Jerram;http://www.lukejerram.com/projects/glass_microbiology replicating a virus wasn't so easy.Luke Jerram holding his swineflu sculptureImage: The Wellcome Trust Jerram and his assistants created glass genomes, ca

By | October 2, 2009

A virus has a relatively easy time replicating itself. It's just a matter of hijacking a cell to generate the necessary components and in minutes, the capsid shell proteins self-assemble around a coil of viral genome. But for the glassblowers working with British artist linkurl:Luke Jerram;http://www.lukejerram.com/projects/glass_microbiology replicating a virus wasn't so easy.
Luke Jerram holding his swine
flu sculpture

Image: The Wellcome Trust
Jerram and his assistants created glass genomes, carefully placing them on tiny pedestals within what would become viral envelopes. Then they closed up the tops before adding final touches of spikes and glycoproteins, which were shaped and melted on while keeping the whole work at roughly the same temperature. Though the natural process of viral replication is seemingly effortless, some viruses do slip up. Dengue virus, for example, creates one properly assembled particle in every 4,000 tries. In comparison, Jerram's glassblowers were relative experts. "These are traditional glassmaking skills," said Jerram, who worked with glassblowers, Kim George, Brian Jones and Norman Veitch, originally trained to create distilleries used in chemistry departments. "Every university used to have a glass blower," he said. Their challenge was to develop techniques to portray a virus particle in the detail Jerram envisioned. Jerram, who has done a number of public installations and performance art exhibitions, became interested in creating microbial sculptures after spending time looking through a microscope. He felt there was a disconnect between what he saw and the way viruses and bacteria were represented in the media. Jerram, who is colorblind, felt the colors imposed a bias on how the general public perceived the virus. "You can end up with people who think that the viruses are beautiful or toxic," he said. To learn more about what viruses really looked like, Jerram simply called the University of Bristol and asked to speak with an expert. He was put in touch with linkurl:Andrew Davidson,;http://www.bristol.ac.uk/cellmolmed/staff/davidson.html a University of Bristol virologist who works on the pathogenicity of Dengue and corona viruses. "He rang up one day and asked that I give him some advice on some of the sculptures he was making." Jerram told Davidson that he was working with schematic drawings of viruses he had seen in textbooks. "I could show him images that were accurate," based on cryoelectron microscopy images that gave "every little detail" of viral structure at the atomic level of resolution, said Davidson. With the help of Davidson and the team of glassblowers, Jerram has made 22 sculptures of seven viruses and one bacterium (__E. coli__, of course), most of which could fit in the palm of one hand. Davidson, who is so familiar with the shape and look of viruses, says he's "more fascinated by how other people react," especially the general public, who still have a sense of wonder about the sculptures and the pathogens they depict. After seeing his representation of the HIV virus, one viewer emailed Jerram, "It's a very odd feeling seeing my enemy, and the eventual likely cause of my death, and finding it so beautiful." Jerram's sculptures are currently on display at the linkurl:Smithfield Gallery;http://www.thesmithfieldgallery.com/ in London through October 3rd. And if the Wellcome Trust's acquisition of his swine flu piece is any indication, Jerram's microbial glass work may soon become a hot commodity for other health organizations.
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Designing buildings, using biology;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/53443/
[27th July 2007]*linkurl:From father to daughter;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/53368/
[6th July 2007]*linkurl:Science and Sculpture;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/36890/
[December 2006]

Comments

Avatar of: jean-yves sgro

jean-yves sgro

Posts: 1

April 22, 2010

Jerram was able to create a visually stunning virus representation made of glass. This piece is beautiful because of the artistic talent of the creator and eerie quality of transparent glass. While most viruses would be naturally beautiful because of their natural symmetry, this is not what makes this piece beautiful and shows real talent. \nMy own "artistic" visualization rely mostly on the symmetry of the viruses and computer software for depth-cueing (http://www.virology.wisc.edu/virusworld/).

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