The Psychology of Protein Structure Determination

Maja Klevanski’s Protein Art site showcases a series of cartoons based on protein “ribbon diagrams”. The basic idea is witty, but simple enough: take ribbon diagrams representing the three-dimensional structures of protein molecules and use them as the basis of cartoons. In Maja’s words: “I rotate the three-dimensional protein image until an interesting shape appears. I color and design the produced snapshot so that the image I saw becomes obvious to the viewer”. As an example, here is Lipoate-protein ligase A (LplA) which, to Maja, suggests “A Pashtun Man”:

 
Turning the same ribbon diagram through 180 degrees, she sees a “Sick Rat Dreaming of a Piece of Tart”:
 


While the origins of how the ribbon images come to suggest the cartoons lie in the artist’s psyche, it’s interesting that once we’ve seen the cartoons, it seems obvious that they were always lurking within the ribbon diagrams. Apparently, in order to see anything, we need to already have a set of expectations, a mental model, of what we’re looking at. Normally, context supplies the model, but when that doesn’t happen, we see things that aren’t really there. Common examples are seeing faces in wallpaper patterns or animals in the clouds.
Maja attempts to make some connections between her drawings and the proteins that inspired them. Thus, “Like the Pakul helps to identify a Pashtun, LplA can help to identify proteins by labeling them” and “the fatty tart might remind us of the fact that LplA is involved in the attachment of lipoic acid which in its turn is involved in the lipid metabolism”. Of course, these connections look contrived and don’t really add anything to our understanding of how the protein’s molecular form contributes to its macroscopic properties. Certainly not in the way that ribbon drawings were originally meant to help us “see” how physical, chemical and biological properties of the protein might be interrelated. In this, they form part of a tradition of using art to enable the vision necessary to see new relations between that encourage the acceptance of new scientific concepts. Think, for instance, of the importance of drawings in advancing understanding of how the body works or of the relations between animal and plant species. It was entirely appropriate that Jane Richardson, often credited as the inventor of protein ribbon drawings, talks of “The Anatomy and Taxonomy of Protein Structure“.
Maja Klevanski’s drawings are amusing, but they don’t contribute to that tradition. Their relevance to science may be more one of giving us cause to reflect on what might be the real reasons we have such a strong tendency to see animals and faces even when there aren’t any there.

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