Art + Science – Dancers Help Scientist Visualize Molecular Motion Inside Cells

ballet dancers in rehearsal

Inside our cells, a continuous and violent molecular dance ensues; molecules are constantly banging and bumping into each other, and, in so doing, they prime themselves for a myriad of complex chemical reactions.

Understanding the dynamics of this “ballet” is fundamental to developing biomedical techniques and technologies that would probe and modify such dynamics for therapeutic ends.

In this age of rapid advances in imaging technologies (like fMRI, PET, PAT, CT, etc.) and microscopy (TEM, AFM), it may seem surprising that scientists would utilize something decidedly “low tech” to help them “see” inside our cells. It is even more surprising (at first glance) for a scientist to utilize one of human culture’s oldest art forms: dance.

But that is exactly what biomedical engineer David Odde (University of Minnesota) has done in teaming up with choreographer Carl Fink (also of the U of Minn., Twin Cities) and his troupe Black Label Movement in their “body-storming” collaboration called The Moving Cell Project.

Odde’s current research focuses on microtubules which are fundamental components of a cell’s cyctoskeleton and are involved in the transport of crucial structural molecules. Odde wanted to explore the abrupt process by which these microtubules lengthen, then shorten — a process that is anything but elegant.

In a bit of serendipity, Fink and Odde had both received grants from the University’s Institute for Advanced Study to study the concept of time. Through their meeting and discussions, they came up with the idea of using dancers to demonstrate this “catastrophic” process of microtubule formation, growth and shortening.

Exploring How to Hit Each Other

The biggest challenge that the collaborators had to overcome was how best to portray the often violent collisions between molecules that occur within cellular structures using people, who are not designed to withstand such constant collisions. After several ideas were put forth — including the use of sumo wrestler-inspired padding and even military grade body armor — the two decided to rely on basic physics.

After some initial experimenting with the dancers,  they figured out that the best way for bodies to absorb the impacts of multiple collisions was to spread the “hit” out over a wider (body) surface area. These “hitting” technique became the basis of their model of molecular movement.

Dancers perform HIT, a spin-off project of The Moving Cell Project, inspired by movements of molecules within cells (Black Label Movement dance troupe, Carl Fink, choreographer). Photo Credit: William Cameron via Science Now

But like cells, art and science collaborations also evolve; the team began using the new techniques to explore other hypotheses and models of cellular activity. In these explorations — such as exploring how a nematode protein moves through a single cell — the choreography grew out of specific rules that the dancers had to follow. For example, walls were set up to represent the boundaries of  the cell and dancers were instructed to only move in one region of this “cell”. In other sections of the cell, they could never speed up their movements.

These restrictions or conditions on the dancers’ movements were dictated by various hypotheses. The ease or difficulty experienced by the dancers provided a type of feedback about the particular model being tested.

The Value of Art for Scientific Inquiry

Odde explains: “What working with them did for me was, in one particular model, I could immediately appreciate—and so could the dancers—why that model wasn’t going to work.” [quote source]

Indeed, in a paper recently published in Trends in Cell Biology, Odde asserts that other scientists could utilize dance to accomplish a sort of “rapid prototyping of hypotheses”. He terms this “bodystorming” as opposed to “brainstorming”.

Such an approach to hypothesis testing, Odde suggests, would have a clear benefit: time saving. Researchers often take months to develop and debug a computer (simulation) model of molecular motion, only to find out it is flawed or missing some key element. Using dancers, researchers could simply instruct them how to move (the “rules” of the program) and see within minutes whether the model works or if a given hypothesis is worth investigating further.

Quoting from the paper abstract:

In everyday life, gravity and inertial forces often dominate our movements; in the cell, these forces pale in comparison to thermal forces. The violent, collisional world of the cell, where water moves faster than a jet airliner, can be difficult to imagine. To develop our intuitive understanding of cellular and molecular processes, we are exploring the concept of ‘bodystorming’, where human ‘movers’ act as molecules that diffuse, undergo reactions, and generate/absorb forces.

A Previous Collaboration – Dance and Neuro-Science

It is not the first time that a scientist has teamed up with a choreographer/dancer to explore a fundamental question or feature of the physical universe. In 2007, Spanish neuroscientist Oscar Vilarroya collaborated with famed choreographer Cesc Gelabert to explore the relationship between movement, emotion and brain activity (specifically: oxygen utilization of different brain regions).

Using functional Magnetic Resonance (fMRI) Imaging technology, Vilarroya recorded how Gelabert’s brain “lit up” as he visualized going through the motions (and emotions) of a new dance performance. In a performance following this, the fMRI images were then converted into abstract animations that were projected during the dance as Gelabert moved from one area of a glowing grid (mapped onto the dance stage) to another. This collaboration also evolved into a “history of the universe” performance called Orion that combined dance, mime and performance art elements, taking the audience on a cosmic tour from the Big Bang to Big Brains.

For decades, academics have lamented the divide between the “two cultures” (the sciences and the humanities). But perhaps, through collaborations such as these, the divide will narrow (if not fully disappear) and greater intellectual fruit will spring forth.

For more information on this collaboration, check out the Science NOW article “Bodystorming: Dance Grooves Show How Molecules Move by Helen Fields

Top Photo: ‘Ballet Dancers in Rehearsal’ by vhpfoto via




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