Glass Microbes and Colorless Viruses

Aug 19 2010 Published by under Art & Science

Electron micrograph of the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus

3D representation of the influenza virus

Look at the two images of the H1N1 influenza virus - the strain that causes swine flu - on the right.

The first is a three-dimensional illustration that shows different parts of the virus in different colors  - the hemagglutinin protein on the surface is blue, for example, while the RNA and associated proteins inside the virus are green.

The second is an electron micrograph image of the same virus. It's a more "realistic" depiction of the influenza virus than the 3D illustration, but it has been artificially colored.

UK artist Luke Jerram was intrigued by the fact that both types of images false in their own way. To explore how artificial coloring can affect our understanding, he worked with University of Bristol virologist Andrew Davidson to create  a series of clear glass sculptures that accurately depict different viruses including the influenza virus, HIV, SARS and smallpox.

Here is Jerram's sculpture of the H1N1 influenza virus:

As he explained in an interview with the Wellcome Trust:

The series is a reflection of my interest in how images of phenomena are represented and presented to the public. I’m colour blind and this has given me a natural interest in exploring the edges of perception.

Often images of viruses are taken in black and white on an electron microscope and then they are coloured artificially using Photoshop. Sometimes that will be for scientific purposes but other times it will be just to add emotional content or to make the image more attractive.

The problem is that you end up with the public believing that viruses are these brightly coloured objects. These are often portrayed in newspapers as having an air of scientific authenticity and objective truth, whereas actually that isn’t the case. You can end up with some images that potentially promote fear.

Smallpox, HIV and Untitled glass virus sculptures

Swine Flu Sculpture

Glass swine flu sculpture by Luke Jerra

I think Jerram's virus sculptures are quite beautiful. However, they don't make the viruses any more or less frightening - or real - to me.

What do you think?

The first two images are from the CDC Newsroom Image Library. The illustration is by Dan Higgins, CDC. The electron micrograph is by C. S. Goldsmith and A. Balish, CDC.

Glass virus photographs by Luke Jerram.

Thanks to Chris for sharing the link to Jerram's web site!

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2 responses so far

  • Lab Rat says:

    I find the glass statues slightly *more* menacing than the cartoony coloured pictures. The glass structures have a sort of quiet smooth menace about them, whereas the coloured images look a little more childish. The glass for me has more of a "smooth sophisticated and deadly" air about it.

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