Molecular Landscapes

David S. Goodsell is a Professor of Computational Biology at the Scripps Research Institute and Research Professor with the RCSB Protein Data Bank at Rutgers. He divides his time between research in computational biology and science outreach. His art explores the inner structure of cells and viruses, using computer graphics and traditional painting with watercolor and ink. This article describes “Molecular Landscapes,” a series of work created for a show at the Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University in April 2020, which was ironically postponed due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

For the past 20 years, I have focused my artistic effort on the biological mesoscale–the scale level bridging the nanoscale of atoms and molecules to the microscale of living cells and tissues. This is an interesting level of scale to explore, because there currently aren’t any experimental techniques to image it directly. Rather, images are synthesized by integrating experimental data from microscopy, structural biology, bioinformatics, and a variety of other scientific sources. “Molecular Landscapes” presents three ongoing projects that explore the mesoscale realm.

Two complementary techniques are used to create these images. In cases where atomic coordinates are available from techniques like x-ray crystallography, images are synthesized using computer graphics. For larger systems, traditional painting techniques with watercolor and ink are used to build images from the body of data that is currently available. A similar non-photorealistic style is used in both approaches.

Coronavirus: Know Your Enemy

This painting was created as part of an informational news feature at the RCSB Protein Data Bank responding to the ongoing coronavirus crisis ( It captures the moment when a virus enters the lungs, with a cross-section through the virus surrounded by respiratory tract mucus, along with antibodies and other defensive molecules from the immune system. My goal with this painting, and with previous portraits of life-threatening viruses, is to demystify and put a face on these submicroscopic foes. The crown-shaped form of the virus is based on electron micrographs and atomic structures from the 2003 SARS virus, which is similar to the current SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Coronavirus 2,000,000X (2020, watercolor and ink on paper).


“VAX” is a series of watermedia paintings exploring the molecular basis of vaccines. These paintings are tied closely to the science–they are designed to be accurate representations of the biological processes–but they also serve as a personal celebration of a miracle of modern medicine. The series currently includes three paintings that explore different aspects of vaccine function.

“Poliovirus Neutralization 2,000,000X” (2019, watercolor and ink on paper) shows aggregation of poliovirus by antibodies in a vaccinated person, neutralizing the virus and preventing infection.


“Influenza Vaccine 2,000,000X” (2019, watercolor and ink on paper) shows a modern recombinant vaccine created by biotechnology in the process of binding to the surface of a B-cell. This will ultimately lead to production of antiviral antibodies.


“Immunological Synapse 2,000,000X” (2020, watercolor and ink on paper) shows a key moment in the dialog between cells of the immune system, when an antigen presenting cell (top) is displaying a small piece of a virus (red dot at center), and using it to stimulate the action of a T-cell (bottom).


“Crystallographs” explores the complexity and beauty of X-ray crystallography, one of the major experimental methods used to determine the atomic structure of biomolecules. This is a nostalgic piece for me, rekindling an interest in biological symmetry that started with my early training (the DNA crystal is from my postdoctoral studies). These digital images on fabric also explore the increasing commoditization of science. Purely exploratory research has become something of a rarity–currently much of biostructural research is justified with the ultimate goal of improving medical science or biotechnology. In this series, inspired by the work of the Festival Pattern Group from the 1950s, I find an orthogonal utility for biomolecular structures in decorative art.

Orthorhombic Nucleosome Array: PDB entry 6hkt
(2020, detail of digital print on fabric)


Trigonal DNA Oligonucleotide: PDB entry 167d
(2020, detail of digital print on fabric)


Tetragonal Phage Portal Protein: PDB entry 5jj3
(2020, detail of digital print on fabric)


Hexagonal HIV Capsid Protein: PDB entry 6ay9
(2020, detail of digital print on fabric)


More information may be found at:

All images copyright and courtesy of David Goodsell

A previous article by David Goodsell can be found at Nanotransport (Interalia Magazine, May 2016)


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