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Health and Medicine

Scientifically Inspired Art Leads To A Scientific Discovery About How Sperm Swims

author

Stephen Luntz

Freelance Writer

clockOct 18 2017, 13:00 UTC

A detailed image of a sperm's tail, complete with new understanding about how the proteins in it change. Wyss Institute at Harvard University

An artistic project designed to communicate its authors' love of science has led to an actual scientific discovery, which has now been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

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Professor Don Ingber is worried that most people don't understand science. He thinks this is because it is taught in schools as rote memorization. He argued in a statement; “If you can memorize it, it's not science.”

"Science is the pursuit of the unknown. We have a responsibility to reach out to the public and convey that excitement of exploration and discovery, and fortunately, the film industry is already great at doing that." Ingber added. As the founding director of Harvard's Wyss Institute, Ingber is in a better position than most to bring science to the public.

Ingber teamed with biophysicist and professional animator Dr Charles Reilly to create a film that would be both scientifically accurate and likely to capture the interest of non-scientists. They decided a combination of sex, science, and Star Wars was a sure-fire winner, and created a parody of the films' trailers, complete with distinctive sloped writing, to tell the story of conception with an egg replacing the Death Star and sperm playing the role of starfighters.

This would be easy enough to do if you're not concerned about scientific accuracy, but Ingber and Reilly wanted to make the way the sperms' tails move match reality. Replicating this at different scales is exceptionally challenging, since the whip-like movements of a sperm's tail are very complex, and look different at large scales compared to when you zoom in on them.

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The filmmakers found that existing models of how proteins act on microtubules in sperms' tails to make them move don't quite replicate what we can see under a microscope. The proteins transform between different shapes, pulling and pushing the microtubules in the process, but the intermediary stage is not fully understood. However, when Ingber and Reilly designed a different connection between the proteins and microtubules, they found their animation matched what we see in nature.

It is not yet possible to say for certain whether the connection Ingber and Reilly came up with is an exact replica of the real one. Nevertheless, Ingber said; “Our animation visually depicts one plausible way that the protein can transition between those shapes at atomic resolution, which is something that other simulations can't do.”

The pair published their ideas on how the connection works in ACS Nano. The trailer-parody, titled The Beginning, can be seen below. We just hope Disney doesn't decide its copyright has been violated.

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Health and Medicine
  • sperm,

  • eggs,

  • Star Wars,

  • conception,

  • Scientific art

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