Protein Portraits 2020 Viral Virtual Show

Protein Portraits 2020 Virtual Art Show

Nanostructures yes, but a big show nonetheless …

The pandemic’s emergence in 2020 demanded an energetic technical response that has now brought into the world an unprecedented wave of new knowledge of virus science and therapeutics.  Facing the new deadly nemesis also inspired viral artistry in efforts to frame the pandemic’s effects on our human situation and relationships.  Art has helped put the virus into perspective.  Our Protein Portraits show for 2020 aims to be part of this artistic exploration of meaning in a worldwide viral crisis.

A viral tsunami: How the underestimated coronavirus took over the world (Shout for The Washington Post March 9, 2021)

Who’s invited?

In any ordinary year, we would have invited the whole Oregon State University campus to our show, with our artworks arranged in a gallery-like setting for the public to peruse.  This year we have gone remote and invite the world to digitally scroll through our works, enabling us to share our take on viruses and their place in our shared human understanding.

The usual term “enjoy” doesn’t seem quite right as we share our art in a year that has brought much pain to many.  The phrase that instead comes to mind is one that a retired New Zealand sea captain used to repeat often to his neighbors in Corvallis as they raked leaves in the fall, repaired gutters in the winter, stared out at the gray weather in spring,  and painted peeling sideboards in July.  The captain always said, “press on regardless”.  So please do that. Press on with our show regardless. May the virus be as ephemeral as its artwork is lasting.

Where’s the art?

Below are our eleven protein portraits from the viral year 2020. Accompanying most of the artworks are scientific illustrations of the protein subject, taken from information sources such as the protein databank and other public domains.

1. The heat of Dengue

Artist: Phillip Hernandez


Dengue fever is among the world’s most common mosquito-transmitted viral infections. This image represents DENV NS1, or the Dengue Virus Nonstructural Protein 1. This is a glycoprotein essential for viral replication. Its exact mechanism is unknown, but researchers are looking into how it contributes to vascular leakage, coagulopathy, and thrombocytopenia among other conditions during the dengue infection.

I was able to take inspiration from two wildly different ideas. On one hand, we have a portion of the DENV NS1 protein that is a digital rendering of the protein using PyMOL. On the other hand, we have a sketched portion of the protein created in OneNote that utilized a customized color scheme. These two parts of the protein were combined in Adobe Photoshop to form one image. The method demonstrated two different ways a protein can be represented.

Reference: PDB ID 4OIG

2. Icosa-tea-dron

Artist: Linus Unitan

Icosahedral virus capsid. Swiss Institute of BioinformaticsFor my project, I decided to make an icosahedral tea cozy out of old denim. The icosahedral shape of the tea cozy represents the shape of the capsule of tea plant necrotic ring blotch virus (TPNRBV), a virus that infects tea plants and causes discoloration on leaves. Four of the rear triangular denim panels, centered around the handle of the teapot, are joined with zippers instead of seams. This closure mechanism makes the tea cozy easily removable for cleaning. There are also two strategically placed holes in the tea cozy, one for the top nub-handle of the teapot’s lid, and another for the spout. Although TPNRBV destroys tea plants, this TPNRBV tea cozy will keep a pot of tea warm and enjoyable.

Media: denim fabric and zippers from jeans, cotton thread, Brown Betty teapot

For more information about TPNRBV, please see this publication: Hao X, Zhang W, Zhao F, et al. Discovery of Plant Viruses From Tea Plant (Camellia sinensis (L.) O. Kuntze) by Metagenomic Sequencing. Front Microbiol. 2018;9:2175. Published 2018 Sep 11. doi:10.3389/fmicb.2018.02175

3.  Beauty In the Eye of the Beholder 

Artist: Makenna Browne 


Yellow Fever is spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito and is most common in areas of Africa and South Africa. Yellow fever severity ranges from mild headache, nausea and vomiting, to severe heart, liver, and kidney problems. When I began my initial search for an inspirational virus, I looked for viruses with signs of beauty. I find it fascinating how an arguably non-living phenomenon can disrupt humans’ highly developed way of life. The Flavivirus causing yellow fever is beautiful in architecture, and is given its name due the viruses association with jaundice. 

My fascination with art began in high school, and I’ve grown to love experimenting with different mediums as I attempt to teach myself artistic techniques. For this particular project, I wanted to learn how to draw eyes. Initially I thought I would paint the virus with oil paint, because I am most comfortable using this medium, but I decided I wanted to step out of my comfort zone and attempt trying colored pencils. I decided highlighting the virus, and the effects the virus has on the eye in color would draw attention to those two components.

Medium: Graphite and colored pencil on paper

Reference PDB: 1NA4

4. Have Your Cake and Eat it Too

Artist: Mikayla Chen

Stacking up Tobacco Mosaic Virus

TMV PDB Molecule of the Month by David Goodsell


When researching various viruses, the structure and color representation of the Tobacco Mosaic Virus caught my eye. I particularly liked the contrast of the red single-stranded RNA against the blue protein sheath in the helical depiction from the Protein Data Bank. The offset stacks of proteins reminded me of the way candy corn looks like when piled up. From this, I had the idea to make a cylindrical cake with an ombre frosting pattern to reflect the stacks of proteins. 

Furthermore, I hollowed out the interior layers of cake so I could place a Twizzler candy inside to represent the strand of RNA. The Tobacco Mosaic Virus, or TMV, was the first virus to be discovered, which significantly advanced scientific knowledge and led to further discoveries concerning the world of viruses. I wanted to pay homage to this fact, so I added a “1” birthday candle for a whimsical touch. TMV infects the leaves of tobacco plants and can spread to its neighboring cells and other plants through direct contact and human handling. The virus is quite resilient and can survive in cigarettes and cigars made from infected leaves for years. To represent the cigars and infected leaves, pirouette cookies and fondant leaves were placed on top the cake as decoration.

Medium: Yellow cake and vanilla buttercream, fondant

TMV birthdayTMV lit upTMV sliced
Virus assembly process:

Reference PDB: 6R7M

5. Colds & Closeness

Artist: Mason Steinbach


I focused my project on the Human Rhinovirus. This virus is the most common viral infectious agent in humans, and it is responsible for what is known as the common cold. This virus forms an isometric or icosahedral shape with its capsid protein coat. I took inspiration from this shape and made a representation of the virus into a twenty sided die, used to play the popular fantasy tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. I created the icosahedron through origami utilizing 30 individual folded pieces of paper, and I made a simple castle battle map with the basic shape of one of the capsid protein subunits. This piece aims to represent a topical dichotomy in this time of social distancing due to COVID-19 through its form as a tabletop game, which helps bring people closer together.

Reference PDB: 2HWD


6. Ebola Virus Does Not Rock My Socks

Artist: Ashley Francis


Ebola Virus disease is generally characterized by a few key symptoms, such as fever, headache, severe intestinal distress, and internal bleeding. The virus is able to take advantage of cellular pathways to enter the cell and hijack its machinery, ultimately making more copies of itself. This results in cell death, or inability to perform necessary functions. In my depiction of the Ebola virus, I wanted to represent one of its mechanisms which I find most fascinating. 

With the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, I really wanted to limit the supplies I used for my project to items I could find in my house. The tube sock is used to depict the filamentous nature of the Ebola virus. As it is filled with rice, it is quite flexible, which allows it to enter the cell, which is depicted by the water bottle. The water bottle is able to close properly, which symbolizes the binding of a cell to another cell. The rigid hair ties on the outside of the sock depict the glycoproteins that are produced by the Ebola virus. When the virus enters the cell, the glycoproteins are able to disrupt cell adhesion. When the sock is wrapped in hair ties, it no longer fits completely in the water bottle, and the water bottle is no longer able to close. This represents the disrupted cell adhesion, due to the glycoproteins.

The cell

The virus (enlarged for clarity)



Medium: Fabric, Paper, Rice, Plastic

Reference: Tam, R. (2014, September 30). This is how you get Ebola. Retrieved June 05, 2020, from

Reference PDB: Ebola virus VP30 CTD bound to nucleoprotein 5T3T


7. Zika Virus Balls

Artist: Quentin Francis


For my project I decided to make zika virus themed knitted yarn balls. I chose to have a more artistic representation rather than a scientific representation of the zika virus. The version with brightly colored ‘spikes’ are neutralized zika viruses. The spikes are neutralizing antibodies which our bodies give the zika virus to neutralize it. The balls without spikes are the non-neutralized zika viruses. The spikes are much brighter and more brilliant than the more muted zika color to represent the spikes leeching the life out of the virus.

Infectious zika virus

Coated with neutralizing antibodies

PDB ID for Zika virus: 5IRE

PDB ID Zika following exposure to neutralizing antibody: 5GZR


8. Corona fashion at a distance

Artist: Kyle Patubo

Wikipedia coronaviruses

This term has been really interesting because due to COVID-19, social distancing measures were put in place to prevent transmission of the virus, to flatten the curve. Taking a closer look at the novel coronavirus, I learned about its structural biology and focused on the spike proteins. I decided to combine the knowledge I gained in my classes with my love for fashion. Science and structural biology have always strongly influenced the world of fashion. My inspirations in this project include Mugler for their strong structural designs that empower and emphasize the natural curves of one’s body, Iris van Herpen because of the way they take interpret the natural in their designs, and the Club Kids movement because of their movement took a lot strange concepts and made it involving art by wearing it.

The first design is a tailored jacket with a print of the coronavirus on the jacket. I wanted the focus to be on the torso and I paired it with a pair of thigh high heel-less boots so that the focus is mainly on the jacket, but it elongates the legs. The coronavirus images would be stoned with jewels to make it stand out more and make it more elegant.

The second design is a strapless, white dress that cuts off around the mid calf. It also contains big poofy sleeves that run until the mid-forearm. However, this dress will have tiny spike proteins on the dress to emulate what the spike proteins look like on the membrane of the coronavirus. The tiny spike proteins also are placed in a way that follows and highlights the curves of the body. 

This third design has these long culotte style pants and a crop top with spaghetti straps. The pants contain a string of six amino acids in the traditional three letter code that are repeating. These six amino acids are critical amino acids in the receptor binding motif of the coronavirus. These amino acids assist in binding to the ACE2 protein , usually in the lungs, of a variety of mammals. Then the crop top has the single letter code of the six amino acids written across the crop top.

Then the fourth design takes the coronavirus print from the first design in and has it imprinted onto this cushion, blanket type fabric. It then makes a wide circle skirt out of it, where the print is in focus, but it also has a built in face mask that is appropriate with the culture of social distancing today.

The fifth design then also takes the tiny spike proteins from the second design and places it on a strong structure-focused dress which emulates the spherical nature of the envelope protein of the coronavirus. The goal is to take the popular image of the coronavirus and bring it to the fashion form. The dress will have a wire structure which will keep the spherical form.

Then the last and final design will contain the six amino acids from the third design and bring it to a black and white strapless form fitting red carpet dress. The amino acids will be printed on black and the lines will stoned so that it brings a bit more elegance to the dress.







When you add it all up, the design portfolio offers plenty of choice. Though one may be isolated, there is still choice in how to coat oneself.

Reference: Novel Coronavirus Lab Protocols and Responses: Next Steps

9. A Look at Phages through Rose-Tinted Glass

Artist: Maddi McArthur

The United Nations General Assembly has deemed antibiotic resistance “the greatest and most urgent global risk.” One increasingly popular method of addressing this issue is by harnessing the bacteria-killing abilities of bacteriophages (viruses that only attack bacteria) to treat bacterial infection. This strategy, known as phage therapy, has existed for almost a century but recent advancements in biotechnologies has made it an even more viable option than ever before.

I used stained glass to depict a bacteriophage latching onto a bacterial cell, which I think is a super hopeful image for the future of phage therapy and all the lives it could save. To look at something “through rose-tinted glasses” means to view it in an optimistic light. Although none of the glass I used was rose in color, I hope my project helped you see the awesomeness of phages and phage therapy.

Stained glass HS1 bacteriophage


Protein from the virus tail

Reference PDB: 4K6B   

Coincidentally, the atomic structure of the bacteriophage HS1 tail needle knob seems to have a head-and-tail arrangement reminiscent of the assembled virus. 

Reference Lin, D. M., Koskella, B., and Lin, H. C. (2017). Phage therapy: An alternative to antibiotics in the age of multi-drug resistance. World J Gastrointest Pharmacol Ther doi: 10.4292/wjgpt.v8.i3.162


10. Painted equine viruses

Artist: Isabel Brinck

Illustrated here are four different viruses that impact various parts of horses. Each virus has been drawn in the affected region.

11. HPV Hydrangea

Creator: Alex Watt

Human papilloma virus, ELECTRON MICROSCOPY
Resolution: 4.30 Å, Guan et al, (2017) Structure 25: 253-263. PDB ID 5KEQ

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is an incredibly common infection in humans. The vast majority of infections do not cause symptoms and ultimately are resolved by the immune system. However, in some cases, infection is serious and has been linked to several different types of cancer, primarily cervical cancer. In fact, virtually all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV infection. 

The HPV virus itself is small and simple in structure. Its shape, in my opinion, greatly resembles that of a hydrangea flower. My goal was to cast a hydrangea depicted as being bound by antibodies in an epoxy resin. Due to complications with the epoxy material, the result was not what was intended, but still spectacular nonetheless. The epoxy heated to an incredible temperature during the curing process, thus destroying the flower. While the flower is not cast in a beautiful clear resin as intended, the process and final product serve as a metaphor for the body’s immune response to the entry of the pathogen. 

Step 1. A lovely fresh, HPV-like hydrangea flower

Step 2. Submerge in embedding epoxy

Step 3. Starting to bubble

The end: Fully cooked. Back to the drawing board.

Reference PDB:5KEQ,  3J6R

Reference: Brianti P, De Flammineis E, Mercuri SR. Review of HPV-related diseases and cancers. New Microbiol. 2017 Apr;40(2):80–5.

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