Communication through illustration: The work of David Goodsell


Communication in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology requires enormous amounts of visualization. Our primary literature and textbooks are filled with graphs, figures, schemes, models, and illustrations attempting to convey an understanding of what the biological world looks like and how it works. The teaching and learning of biochemistry and molecular biology require use of these illustrative techniques. Creating good illustrations requires a special talent in both science and art. This issue of BAMBED begins with the first installment of a series of articles by David S. Goodsell entitled “Illustrating the Machinery of Life”. D. S. Goodsell, an Associate Professor in the Department of Molecular Biology at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, whose research interests include computer-aided drug design and symmetry in protein function, is the author of Bionanotechnology: Lessons From Nature (J. Wiley and Sons, 2004), Our Molecular Nature: The Body's Motors, Machines, and Messages (Springer-Verlag, 1996), and The Machinery of Life (Springer, 1993), which has just appeared in its second edition (Springer, April 21, 2009). His recent biomolecular artwork can be viewed at His illustrations also grace the RCSB* Protein Data Bank website (, where he is the author of the Molecule of the Month.

One of us (J. G. V.) remembers being awestruck many years ago on first sight of Goodsell's illustration of the cross section of an Escherichia coli cell. His illustrative style is unique in trying to represent the cell's three-dimensional environment in all its space-filling detail in a two-dimensional image. It communicated in no uncertain terms how packed the cytoplasm of a cell is with molecules of different shapes and functions. The illustrations presented in the new edition of The Machinery of Life represent an enormous amount of scientific research, in establishing the information necessary to understand the structure as well as in collecting this information and distilling and explaining it in visual form. Goodsell has volunteered to write a series of articles for BAMBED in which he describes the research that he has collected and integrated into several of his illustrations, showing how his work illuminates the junction between science and art. In this issue of BAMBED, we begin with the neuromuscular synapse. We will continue the series in coming issues with more of his remarkable work. We hope these articles will demonstrate the importance of scientific as well as artistic talent in the production of such illustrations and will encourage others with such talents to realize that scholarship takes many forms. Good illustrations are an extremely valuable means of communication and provide an enormous aid to the teaching and learning of biochemistry and molecular biology.

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    The abbreviation used is: RCSB, Research Collaboratory for Structural Bioinformatics.