When Science Meets Art
Why the now-iconic illustration of the coronavirus is so important
By now, you’ve probably seen enough of the CDC’s image of the coronavirus to last a lifetime. Stone grey, speckled with orange dots and sprouting blood-red blooms, the now-iconic visualization is the focus of a new article in the New York Times.
In his March 13 piece for Elemental about how the image was made, writer Robert Roy Britt points out that it isn’t a photograph of the virus but an “illustrated visualization.” Alissa Eckert, the CDC medical illustrator who created it, cobbled it together using known 3D structures of other proteins, which were stored in a repository called the RCSB Protein Data Bank. Until scientists manage to determine how the SARS-CoV-2 virus really looks in three dimensions, renderings like Eckert’s are our best way to visualize and understand what we’re up against.
On Monday, scientists at the University of Minnesota announced they had successfully mapped out the 3D structure of the virus’s “spike” protein — the red bouquets on Eckert’s image. Their unedited study, published early in the journal Nature, not only revealed the protein’s structure in atomic-level detail but also unearthed new insights into what makes it so potent. The spike protein, the authors found, latches onto human cells four times more tightly than the related SARS virus that caused the 2002 epidemic.
In Slate last week, writer Andrew Paul argued it was absurd for laypeople to spend much time considering 3D images of the coronavirus. “Laypersons may learn little, if anything,” he wrote, though he acknowledged the “need to put a face to our external threats, to see — however abstractly — that which menaces us.”
For her part, Eckert told the New York Times that whenever her image makes people stop and think before reaching out to touch something, it’s “out there doing its job.”