Juxtaposing art and science

The process of making a protein portrait requires us to put next to each other the thinkings of scientific concepts and the feelings of artistic expressions.  As you go through this process, be prepared to talk a lot.  Human language works well in both domains, and so it becomes a matter of communicating verbally about thoughts and feelings, often putting these together in the same sentence.

The explorations for each of us may be a sort of three-step waltz that goes something like this:

  1. Find what viscerally appeals to me.  What are my interests?  What feels exciting?
  2. Find some related protein science in the databank or elsewhere.  Is there a visual match?  Is there a clever coincidence or even a pun that brings the science into the picture?
  3. Juxtapose artistic appeal and scientific understanding in a Protein Portraits project.

Spelled out below is an example of how I have run through steps 1, 2 and 3.  We can call this particular example the art of venom.

The art of venom

First, I outlined an area of inquiry that sparks my curiosity and stimulates my sense of artistry.  Like many people, I am curious about animals that defend themselves using venoms, poisons and toxins.  Most of us have had a personal experience with insect venoms (stinging ants, wasps and bees) or spider venoms (black widows, brown recluses).  Maybe you are beguiled by the deadly beauty of poison dart frogs.  In my own case, I used to keep a pet rattlesnake in my dorm room.  The contrasting colors and angular skin pattern of the diamondback rattlesnake inspire my artistry.

Second, I investigated the scientific literature to learn how protein molecules are associated with the action in a typical encounter between “the stinger” and “the stung”.  The active ingredients of many venoms often include one or more kinds of protein molecules, often enzymes that induce pain and inflammation by tearing apart the victim’s membranes and molecules, or in other cases sticky proteins that bind to the victim’s important molecules, creating havoc.  The scientific literature is at our fingertips.  We can search the Protein Databank using just about any search term.  When I searched the term “rattlesnake venom”, I was instantly offered 23 protein structures to examine. One of the protein structures in this search is crotoxin B (2QOG), an enzyme (a “phospholipase”) that cleaves lipid molecules in the vicinity of a rattlesnake bite, disrupting membrane barriers and thereby causing pain and severe tissue damage.

Third, I am now in a position to juxtapose my scientific curiosity with my artistic inklings.  Take a look at the  two images reproduced below.  What does one image say about the other? Can I forge a work of art by joining my real-world impressions with my scientific understanding?

diamond skin pattern

Diamondback skin pattern

Crotoxin B ribbon black bkg

Crototoxin B (2QOG)

The match in patterns between the snake skin and the protein structure could very easily be enough for me to carry this project forward to a full-fledged protein portrait.  Of course I would still need to plan out the project as far as the use of artistic medium, blending of visual qualities between the macroscopic and the microscopic, and I would also want to dive deep into many other aspects of the co-inspirational elements that unite the science and art of venoms.  But this is the sort of starting inspiration that leads to a successful final project.

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