Protein Portraits: An art class for science nerds

Wouldn’t it be cool if there were such thing as a hybrid science-art class? At Oregon State University, there is! It’s an undergraduate honors course called Protein Portraits, taught by Phil McFadden and described by the same as:

The Oregon State University Honors College course that adds paint brushes and plaster of Paris to the toolkit for studying protein molecules. We build protein molecules as we imagine them, depicting them as reflections of not only experimental science but of our living experience in the world.

The only course assignment is to create an artistic visual representation of a protein that preferably communicates its biological role in some way.

Colloquially, one might think of “protein” in the context of what meat or meat substitute is preferred in one’s tom yum noodle soup, but here it refers to a type of large molecule inside living things. Some proteins are like little molecular machines that perform the subcellular tasks that keep your body functioning–they break down your food, help your neurons communicate, and make your muscles contract, to name just a few of these little workers’ jobs.

I think the idea of featuring proteins as art subjects is really interesting, because protein molecules are too small to ever be observed in high resolution by the human eye, even with the help of a powerful light microscope. Why?

  • To be seen, an object needs to be at minimum the size of half the wavelength of the light being used to see it.
  • The wavelength range of visible light (violet to red) is 400-700 nanometers (nm).
  • The length of atomic bonds within a protein is around 0.1 – 0.2 nm.
  • Unlike visible light, X-rays (very high energy light) are the right size for viewing protein atoms and bonds, but of course, human eyes cannot perceive X-rays.

Scientists have other methods of deducing protein structures, but this quote from the course instructor Phil McFadden is nevertheless so true: “Art meets science every single time we think about protein molecules. We depend on art to make the invisible visible.”

At end of the term, the students’ art projects are put on display. You can see examples of protein art from a previous year in this article that the Protein Data Bank (PDB) did about McFadden’s course (so cool!!!), including a portrait of the egg protein ovalbumin made out of soft pretzels. The article also features an interview with McFadden, a highly recommended read if you’re interested in learning more about the course.

Here are a few of my favorite pieces from this year’s show, which ran in early June, 2016 (shared with permission):

Gluten: Sticky Strings and Globby Things
By Sara Kerr. Major: Nutrition with Dietetics option

"Gluten: Sticky Strings and Globby Things" by Sara Kerr. Medium: Acrylic paint on Bob's Red Mill wheat gluten mixed with water tinted using watercolor paint.

“Gluten: Sticky Strings and Globby Things” by Sara Kerr.
Medium: Acrylic paint on Bob’s Red Mill wheat gluten mixed with water tinted using watercolor paint.

I love this piece because Sara used gluten as both the artistic subject and medium! In addition to being a nutrition student, Sara is actually a professional artist. You can see more of her work on her website. Here is Sara’s description of her project:

As a Nutrition major I was intrigued by gluten because it has become such a hot topic in recent years. There are two main [protein] components of gluten: gliadin and glutenin. Glutenin is generally “stringy” and gliadin is generally “globular.” However, gluten is a very complex matrix and not much is known about certain aspects of its structure. As a result, my piece is abstract and meant to be representational.

The consistency of gluten and its sticky nature made it a good medium to work with for this piece. I used Bob’s Red Mill wheat gluten mixed with water that I tinted using watercolor paint. By adding either water to a large amount of gluten or adding gluten gradually to a large amount of water, the consistency of the gluten varies from very squishy to very stretchy like gum and I utilized both textures for representing the proteins gliadin and glutenin. After applying the gluten to the board I let it air dry, then went back in with acrylic paint to add the lines you see.

The blue color scheme is representative of hydration, and the detailing depicts the loops, trains, beta spirals, and alpha helices that make up the protein’s secondary and tertiary structures.


Krazy Crochet: Keratin
By Lyndi-Rae Petty. Major: Biology, Minor: Chemistry

By Lyndi-Rae Petty. Medium: crocheted wool.

“Krazy Crochet: Keratin” by Lyndi-Rae Petty. Medium: Crocheted wool.

Lyndi-Rae described her project as follows:

Keratin is an extremely important part of organismal structure and protection. Hair, bones, shells, skin, feathers, and beaks are some of the most common places where keratin can be found. I chose to use hair as the representation of keratin because of its value in society and also its dynamic properties.

One of those properties is that when hair becomes wet, the alpha helices of keratin unwind and become elongated. I used simple crochet techniques and wool to create my keratin protein portrait. If you pull each end of the protein it will uncoil and as soon as you let go it will recoil, which represents hair becoming wet.


A Happy Medium: Human Dopamine D3 receptor
By Anne Lyons. Major: Biochemistry & Biophysics

“A Happy Medium: Human Dopamine D3 receptor” by Anne Lyons. Medium: InstaMorph.

“A Happy Medium: Human Dopamine D3 receptor” by Anne Lyons.
Medium: InstaMorph (moldable plastic).

Although unrelated to its biological function, it’s pretty awesome that this art piece also doubles as a pencil holder. At first I thought perhaps that this piece was 3D printed, but Anne revealed that she actually sculpted it by hand, using a moldable thermal plastic called InstaMorph. She chose the dopamine receptor for her project because she is interested in the physiological and molecular pathways to happiness. Here is Anne’s project description:

Proteins bring a big smile to my face, especially the D3 receptor! Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward-motivated behavior. Low levels of dopamine activity are associated with Parkinson’s disease and the aging process. But high levels of activity are associated with schizophrenia and drug use.

D3 receptors in particular have increased expression after just one exposure to cocaine, which shows a physiological pathway to drug addiction. That’s why, when it comes to dopamine receptors, its better to find a happy medium!


Bioluminescence in Jellies: Aequorin
By Emaan Khan. Major: Microbiology

"Bioluminescence in Jellies: Aequorin" by Emaan Khan. Medium: Cheesecloth, fabric softener, and a string of LED lights.

“Bioluminescence in Jellies: Aequorin” by Emaan Khan. Medium: Cheesecloth, fabric softener, and a string of LED lights.

Description by the artist:

Jellyfish, or jellies, are beautiful animals with many amazing qualities, from their umbrella shaped bodies to their lack of a brain, bones, and a heart to their ability to sting with their tentacles. While all of these make jellyfish very interesting creatures, my favorite quality is their bioluminescence. … The inside of this jellyfish is lit up by the protein aequorin, which emits light when it binds to Ca2+.


Crystal Blue Persuasion: α-Crystallin Domain of Chaperone Protein HSPB1
By Rochelle Glover. Major: Microbiology

"Crystal Blue Persuasion: α-Crystallin Domain of Chaperone Protein HSPB1" by Rochelle Glover. Medium: Ceramic.

“Crystal Blue Persuasion: α-Crystallin Domain of Chaperone Protein HSPB1” by Rochelle Glover. Medium: Ceramic.

I want this ceramic pot. So bad. Besides being awesome-looking and useful, the design behind this piece is almost poetic in its complexity. Rochelle wrote:

One of the major sensory organs we use to perceive art is the eye. Eyes are not only a vessel through which we observe works of art, but are often the focal point of the art itself. Crystallins are proteins found in the human eye that are responsible for maintaining the transparency and crystal-like appearance of the eye. The glaze used to cover this ceramic piece essentially turns to liquid glass during the firing process. This results in a transparent, crystalline finish, much like that of the crystallins in our eyes.

I asked Rochelle about the inspiration behind this work, and she answered, “I wanted to choose a protein unrelated to my field, and I was fascinated by proteins of the human eye. I wanted to create a piece that was, essentially, the protein subject observing itself.”

You can see more portraits from this year and previous years at the Protein Portraits (“P-squared”) course blog.

I asked Dr. McFadden what his favorite protein is, and without skipping a beat he answered, “Hemoglobin.” (This is the protein in your blood cells that carries oxygen from your lungs to every tissue in your body.) Ever the biological poet, he continued, “It’s the blood of Shakespeare, and war. It’s abundant, red, vital for life. It’s one of the first high-resolution protein structures solved. It set the pace for biochemistry, and how to understand the human condition at the molecular level.

What is your favorite protein and why? Share in the comments!

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