Visualizing Viruses: How Art And Science Can Develop Together

Visualizing Viruses: How Art And Science Can Develop Together

Described over 30 decades ago, in the early 1980s. The notion of a brand new viral disease that killed nearly everyone who became contaminated was terrifying. Since that time, HIV infection has become a manageable chronic illness, with a normal life expectancy if one is fortunate enough to be able to get treatment. HIV is now the most studied and best understood virus ever.

A virus is the smallest biological entity that can replicate itself, though they’re completely determined by their host. Viruses are essentially molecular machines that could reprogramme host cells to make viruses.

Viruses are far too small to see with the naked eye. Scientists visualise them using powerful microscopes which use beams of electrons rather than light. This fast developing technology is showing virus construction in greater detail, helping us understand how viruses operate. However there are different methods of visualising viruses too, as we found when we began working with the artist John Walter. He got in touch about some of our microscope images of HIV.


All living items are contaminated with viruses. Viruses typically cause illness in their bunch. The server, in turn, usually deploys a multi layered defence method to control and prevent disease. That is our immune system. Viruses and hosts are engaged in an antagonistic relationship which has existed throughout the evolution of life on earth. This is evidenced by remnants of ancient viral infections, which left their DNA in host genomes and today comprise about 8 percent of human DNA.

The work in our laboratory rests on the broad theory that HIV has managed to infect 80m individuals, kill 30m, and cause a worldwide pandemic, because of its unique ability to overcome the defences encompassed by our own immune system.

We work on the HIV capsid. Nonetheless, it is not a passive container. It’s a molecular machine that regulates synthesis of viral DNA and acts as a GPS by interacting with a series of proteins in the host cell that it infects. We aim to comprehend the way the capsid works, asking how it interprets this information and the way we can target capsids with new types of drug.


He learned about capsids. John had seen some of these pictures and had even made some beautiful viral capsids from cardboard. We were struck by how true they were.

We realised almost instantly that despite our different viewpoints, we were asking the same questions. How can the capsid fit together and how can it function? Due to our surprise, our ancient discussions quickly turned into a genuine collaboration. John attends our laboratory meetings, asks questions about our work and arouses new questions and views. John licenses our imagination in a fresh way, and we expect that we do the same for him.

John’s artwork is massively influenced by the discussions he’s in the laboratory. But he doesn’t just illustrate our job. Rather, our science offers new material to inspire his job.

Painting Science

For example, John has generated epic paintings of the interior of a cell as seen by a virus. His “cytoplasm” series is affected by our discussions of aggressive hosts and evasion of both defences and cloaking of germs from inherent immune systems. A number of us are in the film.

His “allostery” string of functions, but are affected by our theory that the HIV capsid changes shape each time it touches part of a host cell. Allostery is the word we use to describe shape changes when proteins signature. Critically, it’s not merely the touching pieces that change, the entire protein may change shape. We suggest that this is the way the HIV GPS operates. It knows where it is based on what shape its capsid proteins have been in.

Science and art are both exceptionally creative areas and our work with John has brought this home. It has promoted a real commitment to taking a creative way of answering our scientific questions. John has provided us a new basis for supporting early career scientists and pupils to recognise that science is a creative enterprise.

Our cooperation with John has been much wider reaching than we anticipated. We have encouraged each other to enlarge the space in which we ask questions and open ourselves to additional perspectives. We think, perhaps, that we are inventing a new way to do science, and a fresh means to do artwork.