Virtalis, a company based in the UK, helped develop a 3-D visualization tool for proteomics that has proven valuable for both research and education. Image: National Science Foundation.
How do you get to know a protein? How about from the inside out?
you ask chemistry professor James Hinton, “It’s really important that
students be able to touch, feel, see … embrace–if you like, these
decades, with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF),
Hinton has used nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) to look at protein
structure and function. But he wanted to find a way to educate and
engage students about his discoveries.
have all of this equipment, I get a lot of information about the
structure of proteins and peptides, but the one thing I didn’t have was a
very sophisticated way of looking at them,” says Hinton, from his lab
at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.
five years ago, he realized there’s a big difference between students
looking at a drawing of a protein in a textbook and letting them “jump
into” a three-dimensional display of these complex biochemical
are visual people nowadays; they like to see things,” says Hinton. “So I
began to look around for ways of actually visualizing three-dimensional
structures, and I came upon this idea of, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we
had immersive techniques that would allow us to experience 3-D virtual
support from the Arkansas Bioscience Institute (ABI), Hinton worked
with Virtalis, a company in Britain, to create an immersive 3-D virtual
reality experience for studying proteins. The results have been
beginning to have a major impact on how we teach, and it is a great
tool for students entering the fields of chemistry and biochemistry,”
Chemistry assistant professor Paul Adams, seen here with students, uses the 3-D visualization developed by chemistry professor James Hinton at the University of Arkansas with the company Virtalis. Credit: University of Arkansas
are chemical entities; they pretty much do all the work in your body,”
says graduate student Vitaly Vostrikov. “The problem with proteins is
that they are three-dimensional entities. Visualizing them in two
dimensions, on a sheet of paper, is pretty complex.”
“Pretty complex” could sometimes mean tedious and frustrating for Vostrikov and many researchers studying proteins.
when you have a protein that is of biological interest, and you want to
understand the function, or to alter its activity, the first thing to
do is to have the structure of the protein. Once you have the structure,
you can understand what the protein looks like. For example, if it has
to bind with other molecules, where do the molecules bind? Can we make
binding stronger? Can we make binding weaker? Can we disrupt the binding
site at all?” explains Vostrikov.
a pair of 3-D glasses, he demonstrates how the immersive virtual
reality display could show these structures. He could dive in and out of
DNA, strains of the flu, and hemoglobin. The technology makes it
possible to zoom in, zoom out, or rotate the structure; or look at
components one by one.
“Understanding protein function is essential if you want to do something in pharmaceutical chemistry,” adds Vostrikov.
companies, universities and medical schools in the United States,
Britain and Canada are using the technology. “We’ve had radiology groups
come in, interested in imaging, of course, and the ability to do
virtual reality on the human body,” says Hinton.
Even people in non-scientific fields are using these imaging techniques.
people have been in, including a group from Walmart. They’re interested
in building new stores, but it’s far better to build a store in virtual
reality, make your mistakes there, than break ground and start
building,” says Hinton.
colleague, Paul Adams, assistant professor of chemistry and
biochemistry at the University of Arkansas, says virtual reality has
become an important tool for his work as well.
Adams studies abnormally functioning proteins, with the aim of learning more about the spread of cancer cells.
believe visualization is the epitome of trying to examine what
differences among biomolecules could be the cause or the reason for them
functioning in different ways and different environments,” says Adams.
says both his research and his teaching have been enhanced using the
immersive 3-D virtual reality. In addition, these dramatic displays
invite academic cooperation.
you think of interdisciplinary approaches, such as the work of a
biologist, or a chemist, or a physicist: All three scientists could look
at this technology, and see three different things, to come up with
different ideas based on what they are seeing. And so I think that
immersive technology could be a potentially novel way to interject
interdisciplinary collaboration,” explains Adams.
is 72 years old, and says he’s “just an old man having fun.” He and
others at the university use a demo tape of the 3-D virtual reality as a
recruiting tool. It’s just the spark some young people need.
them have fun is a great joy ’cause you feel maybe one out of these 100
or so kids will say, ‘Well, biochemistry or, hmm … chemistry, maybe
I’d like that’,” says Hinton.
has high praise for his students, many of whom have been supported by
NSF. Immersive 3-D virtual reality allows the students, in their quest
to solve real world problems, the opportunity to view their world in a