A team from the University of Bristol has created new virtual reality (VR) cloud-based tools that could lead to new drug discoveries and boost the teaching of chemistry, by combining real-time molecular simulations with VR technology.
The new technology gives scientists a chance to reach out and touch virtual molecules as they move, while also being able to fold, knot, pluck and change their shape to see how they interact. By using cloud computing, several different researchers can interact with the molecules in the same virtual space simultaneously.
“Chemists have always made models of molecules to understand their structure—from how atoms are bonded together to Watson and Crick’s famous double helix model of DNA,” University of Bristol professor of Chemistry Adrian Mulholland said in a statement. “At one point in their education, most people have held a molecular model, probably made from plastic or metal. Models like these are particularly important for things we can’t see, such as the nanoscale world of molecules.
“Thanks to this research we can now apply virtual reality to study a variety of molecular problems which are inherently dynamic, including binding drugs to its target, protein folding and chemical reactions,” he added. “As simulations become faster we can now do this in real time which will change how drugs are designed and how chemical structures are taught.”
In the study, the researchers designed a series of molecular tasks, including threading a small molecule through a nanotube, changing the screw-sense of a small organic helix and trying a small string-like protein into a simple knot for participants to test on a traditional mouse and keyboard, touchscreens and virtual reality.
The volunteers that used virtual reality were 10 times more likely to succeed in difficult tasks like tying knots.
“Using VR to understand molecular structure and dynamics allows to perform a kind of nanoscale molecular ‘surgery,’ enabling researchers to develop an intuition for the dynamical ‘feel’ of specific molecular systems,” corresponding author and Royal Society Research Fellow David Glowacki, PhD, said in a statement. “The medical field has known for years that VR-trained surgeons complete procedures faster than non-VR trained counterparts, with significantly lower error rates.
“That’s part of the reason why I think it’s interesting to adapt this technology to understand nano-scale systems,” he added. “A big reason I find this work so fascinating is because it requires unifying the state-of-the-art in technology with aesthetics, design and psychology.”