Beautiful Science

'Going dotty' in service of science

Dr Rishita Changede's aboriginal art-inspired image (above) of a microscopic protein which helps cells to bind to surrounding tissues. The artistic impression came about from research she did with her colleagues at the Mechanobiology Institute, NUS.
Dr Rishita Changede's aboriginal art-inspired image (above) of a microscopic protein which helps cells to bind to surrounding tissues. The artistic impression came about from research she did with her colleagues at the Mechanobiology Institute, NUS. PHOTOS: RISHITA CHANGEDE
Dr Rishita Changede's aboriginal art-inspired image of a microscopic protein (above) which helps cells to bind to surrounding tissues. The artistic impression came about from research she did with her colleagues at the Mechanobiology Institute, NUS.
Dr Rishita Changede's aboriginal art-inspired image of a microscopic protein (above) which helps cells to bind to surrounding tissues. The artistic impression came about from research she did with her colleagues at the Mechanobiology Institute, NUS.PHOTOS: RISHITA CHANGEDE

NUS researcher inspired by aboriginal art to create image of microscopic protein

At first glance, art and science may not seem to have a direct connection but a scientist has put her own artistic spin on recently published research.

Dr Rishita Changede of the Mechanobiology Institute at the National University of Singapore (NUS) has created an aboriginal art-inspired image of a protein which helps cells to bind to surrounding tissues. Her artistic impression, which made the cover of science journal Developmental Cell last month, came about from research she did with her colleagues, including Professor Michael Sheetz, the institute's director.

Using Nobel Prize-winning super-resolution microscopy techniques (which earned three scientists the 2014 Nobel Prize in chemistry), which can view cells in nanometres, researchers were able to visualise these proteins called integrin.

"Because of their small size, visualising single proteins and their organisation using conventional microscopes is extremely difficult... With this technology, individual proteins appear like dots, which allows us to recreate the inner workings of the cell," said Dr Changede.

One nanometre is one-billionth of a metre, and a pinhead is about 1 million nanometres across.

Integrin acts as a "hook" to help cells bind to surrounding tissue such as collagen. This binding is very important for cells to maintain their shape and function, and for our body to maintain healthy skin, for example, she explained.

Malfunctioning of integrin or its binding leads to devastating diseases such as cancer, fibrosis - the thickening and scarring of connective tissue - and heart disease.

Dr Changede said she decided to create the artwork, using digital drawing media and Adobe Photoshop, because dots in Australian aboriginal images are used to form intricate patterns to tell stories.

Previously, it was thought that integrins were present randomly within the cell, but her team discovered that they are arranged in orderly patterns, as discs at the cell membrane.

These discs allow the cell to establish a physical connection to its surroundings, acting as the "hands and feet" of the cell. They also enable the process where cells can sense and respond to external mechanical stimuli by converting them into biochemical signals.

"Our observation of this beauty in which protein dots form intricate patterns in order to function is similar to the beauty of how aboriginal art uses small dots to create a larger picture," she said. "Therefore, we found it apt to use this art form to visualise and better interpret our scientific findings."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2016, with the headline ''Going dotty' in service of science BeautifulScience'. Print Edition | Subscribe