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Graphs, worms and California skies

Scientists combine their love of science and art in an image competition hosted by the Stanford Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute.

Jagged lines jut through purple-and-gold panels, producing peaks of a mountainous skyline. Called "A Californian Sunset," this image is more than just visually striking -- it's a representation of postdoctoral scholar Alakananda Das' research.

Das investigates how our sense of touch works on a molecular level, studying a type of worm known as C. elegans as a model. The sunset-esque image, which was awarded third place in this year's scientific image competition hosted by the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute, is the readout of a type of graph known as a kymograph, which is often used to visualize the movement of a molecule or particle of interest.

"A Californian Sunset" shows how vesicles, which are fluid-filled structures that transport materials in a cell, move about in C. elegans neurons, helping reveal how they support the worm's sense of touch.

I spoke to Das, who works in the Goodman Wormsense Laboratory, to learn more about how she produced the image and what led her to the intersection between art and science.

How did you create this image?

I was researching a specific protein that's involved in processing touch, called MEC-4, in the neurons of C. elegans. Using fluorescence microscopy, we attached a fluorescent protein to MEC-4, which allowed us to observe its location within neurons. I saw that some of the MEC-4 proteins were in vesicles that were moving around, which we hadn't seen before; usually, these proteins stay in fixed positions along the neuron. This discovery clued us into how MEC-4, which is synthesized at one end of the neuron, gets distributed all the way to the other end of the neuron, which is about half the body length of the entire worm.

It was incredibly exciting, and I decided to take some videos of these proteins with our fluorescence microscope. The image that you see is a compilation of kymographs created from these videos. Kymographs are often used to track movement in biology because they show the change in position of a moving molecule over time. We create a kymograph by selecting and cropping out a defined area in every frame of the video and lining them up side by side. So any feature within the cropped region that is moving will show up as diagonal lines.

In this image, the horizontal lines represent the fixed, unmoving MEC-4 proteins while the diagonal lines represent the moving vesicles. Each of the eight panels in this image represents a two-minute video; the full image shows the movement of the vesicles over 16 minutes.

The original image was in black and white, so I used Photoshop to create a custom color map, linking certain pixels to specific colors to make the image of a sunset.

What inspired you to submit this image?

I created this image last year and presented it at one of our lab meetings. Everyone was very enthusiastic about it, so I entered it into an exhibition hosted by Stanford University's Department of Material Sciences and Engineering. After receiving some good feedback, I decided to enter the image into this contest as well.

To me, art and science go hand in hand. I am an artist -- I do a lot of painting and acrylic renderings of natural landscapes. But I am also a scientist and sometimes I like to mix my two interests.

What do kymographs add to our understanding of biology?

The main question that we're trying to answer through our C. elegans research is how the physical sense of touch is processed. When your finger touches something, the physical pressure applied is converted into signals and sent to your brain. We know that MEC-4 is one of the key proteins that facilitates that process in worms. But we don't know how MEC-4 works, which is part of what I'm trying to figure out. Capturing the movement of MEC-4 in vesicles tells us a lot about how this protein gets distributed along these long neurons, so that the neurons can process the touch stimulus applied at any point along the worm's body.

"The Van Golgi" and "Connected Consciousness in an Undersea Egalimind" were awarded first and second place, respectively.

Photo by Alakananda Das

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