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Every year at UCL, the graduate school holds the Research Images as Art competition. I’m happy to announce that, out of about 250 entries, my mosaic of Charles Darwin was runner-up in this year’s competition!

My image is based on a photograph of Charles Darwin by Julia Margaret. I’ve turned it into a 1.2 gigapixel mosaic using images of protein structures from the Protein Data Bank (PDB), generated from X-ray crystallography and nuclear magnetic resonance data. The mosaic is composed of image tiles from a pool of about 19000 non-identical PDB structures and so represents the current content of the entire PDB. To produce the image I used a mosaic generator called Metapixel.

At the moment I’m struggling to embed the flash applet into (free) WordPress, so to explore the image using the flash applet click here. If you zoom in using the flash controls (the triangular slider works best), you should be able to make out one or two crystal structures. If you can’t view the flash applet, you can see the various levels of zoom here.

charles darwin pdb mosaic

As Darwin’s 200th birthday is rapidly approaching, I’ve had some very enthusiastic feedback from my department who are keen to display a large print of this image in the entrance hall as part of a celebratory Darwin exhibit.  This is pretty exciting for me – I just hope they can afford to do it justice and print it at a scale where you can make the proteins out. At 300DPI you could print it at 9×11 feet though I dread to think how much that would cost. For more large scale science images you may want to check out some of Ben Fry’s projects. His image of chromosome 13 is very big.

My other entry in the competition is an image of a potassium channel. Due to the use of detergents in protein crystallography, transmembrane proteins are rarely visualised in their natural state – embedded in a lipid bilayer. However, computational approaches now allow us to predict the position of such proteins within the membrane and reconstruct the ensemble. This image shows a bacterial inward rectifying potassium channel [pdb code 1p7b] embedded in the inner membrane, with potassium ions flowing through it into the cell. It was generated using Pymol, taking about 4 hours to render due to the huge number of atoms that make up the membrane. The potassium ions were added afterwards using Gimp.

potassium channel 1p7b

Unfortunately I didn’t win anything for this one, which actually took a lot longer to produce than the Darwin one. However, I’ve got some ideas to expand it into a more panoramic view of the plasma membrane, with a large number of membrane proteins embedded inside it. Roll on the 2009 competition..


  1. not showing up on here timbo? 😦

  2. Fixed.. can’t embed flash applets in (free) WordPress though.. if you find out how let me know 🙂

  3. Hi, how did you show the phospholipid bilayer as you did above in pymol? Thanks. (please e-mail me)

  4. what`s the software?

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