Beautiful, but Deadly: Painting the Coronavirus

Pandemic as art.

You’ve seen it. Probably a thousand or more times by now. It’s the image of a greyish sphere, hanging in space, barbed with blood-red spikes. It looks like an undersea Navy mine… or perhaps a dog’s chew toy. The Covid-19 coronavirus illustration is one of the best known and most viewed scientific illustrations in history. Released in early February by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the image has been seen on news sites, in magazines, even on SNL.

That digital illustration, created by two medical illustrators at the CDC’s Graphic Services Branch — Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins — will forever be the iconic image of the current pandemic. As a piece of digital art, it is lovely. As a piece of science, it is terrifying.

But another image of the virus was painted in watercolor by the San Diego-based scientist and biological artist David Goodsell, one of the most famous and accomplished scientific illustrators alive today. Goodsell has published several books of his illustrations, and many of his lavishly colored paintings can be found in medical school textbooks. A few have won awards. Some have even hung in museums. Goodsell’s coronavirus image is not nearly as famous, but as a work of art — and a work of science — it is just as mesmerizing. And more lovely.

Goodsell is an Associate Professor in the Department of Integrative Structural and Computational Biology at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego. Most of the time, he works as a scientific illustrator (or molecular artist), a growing field in science, with numerous university programs available around the country. While the CDC image was created entirely within a computer, Goodsell’s work tends to be done in watercolor, a much older medium, but one that gives his images a vibrant beauty, making terrible pathogens like E-coli, Ebola and HIV, not to mention coronavirus, look like a psychedelic dream or a candy-colored nightmare.

Ebola virus: David Goodsell

Goodsell says that creating images like these serve a very important purpose: allowing people to picture something that otherwise would be unseeable.

“I was trying to put a face on the virus, so it’s not invisible, so we can see what we’re fighting,” Goodsell told California Science Weekly.

Because there are so many other images out there of the virus, it might seem like creating an illustration of it would be simple, but Goodsell says that there’s a tremendous amount of science involved, and that he strives to be as technically accurate as possible, showing only the known proteins in the virus and how they might be organized within the virion, the technical term for a virus particle.

David Goodsell in his home studio.

At the time that the painting was made, says Goodsell, not much was known about the virus. Its genetic structure was still being figured out. But since the virus is so similar to the SARS virome, Goodsell used a lot of the information from existing data on that virus, to create his work of art. Like most molecular artists, Goodsell draws from existing information about the proteins that make up a virus, much of which is freely available in the Protein Data Bank, a global online repository of genetic and structural data on thousands of the proteins which make up all living things.

“I want it to be something that people want to look at. I don’t particularly want it to look scary or monsterish.”

David Goodsell

The Protein Data Bank contains “some really nice structures of the spike protein on the outside of the virus.” Those spike proteins (colored a deep blood-red in the CDC image, but a bubblegum pink in Goodsell’s painting) are the means by which the virus attaches itself to our own cells before injecting them with its RNA, which will rapidly replicate inside and potentially wreak havoc in our bodies.

“If you Google coronavirus, people are using a whole range of different amounts of data, and most of the pictures are total garbage. Somebody has heard there are spikes on the virus, so they put things that look like big nails on the surface,” says Goodsell. “The CDC’s and my picture are much more tied to the data.”

Since creating the image in February, however, more information has come out about the virus’s genetic composition, and Goodsell may revisit his image, although he thinks it remains accurate. Little was known, for example, about the RNA contents of the virus, the genetic information that invades human cells. He also notes that the virus’s shape is not as uniform as depicted in most illustrations, and that any effort to create an image of it requires a significant amount of artistic license. For example, the CDC image, while accurate in terms of various proteins pictured, is likely not the neatly organized spiked ball floating in space that most people have come to know.

“I was trying to put a face on the virus, so it’s not invisible, so we can see what we’re fighting.”

David Goodsell

“It’s not a perfect sphere and it comes in a range of different sizes,” says Goodsell. “All of my reading is that the spikes are arranged randomly on the surface.”

Another quality that is entirely up to the artist is color. None of the molecules in the virus have much color, so molecular artists like Goodsell (and Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins at the CDC), choose colors that they believe will be both pleasing and informative, helping to differentiate the various structures within the virus particle. “Color is used to help improve the clarity of what the structures are. The CDC has used that bright red to show what they think is the most important part, the spike on the surface,” says Goodsell.

For Goodsell’s part, his palette is far less sinister. He favors delicate pastels and swooping forms over the stark primary colors and jagged spikes of most coronavirus images. “I want it to be something that people want to look at. I don’t particularly want it to look scary or monsterish.”

That said, Goodsell says he’s been getting a lot of comments about the painting on Twitter. “Invariably, they say it’s beautiful but deadly.”

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