How can cells that contain the same DNA be so different? This simple question is posed right at the beginning of the latest 3D animation created by Dr Kate Patterson of the Garvan Institute as part of ‘VIZBIplus: Visualising the Future of Biomedicine’.

Tagging DNA takes the viewer on a journey deep inside the nucleus of a cell, to the DNA where chemical tags called methyl groups are added to the DNA to affect gene expression. Using scientific data derived from crystallography research, Kate demonstrates using animation exactly how the enzyme DNA methyl transferase (DNMT) attaches to the DNA and transfers a methyl group to a cytosine base that has rotated out from the DNA strand.

The goal of this animation and others in the VIZBIplus project is to create a visually aesthetic and scientifically accurate visualisation that explains medical research in a way that inspires and engages a general audience. This project was initially funded by the Inspiring Australia government initiative, the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, the Walter & Eliza Hall Institute, and CSIRO.

Kate’s animation also shows how in cancer, the DNA becomes highly disorganised. Methyl molecules are added and removed from the DNA such that some genes that should be on are switched off and some genes that should be off are switched on. To visually demonstrate how this occurs, Kate built an accurate 3D model of DNA using the 3D animation software Autodesk Maya. The DNA model includes structural details such as the major and minor groove, thermal or Brownian motion of atoms, 10.5 base pairs per 360 degree turn of the DNA and the base pairs are even colour coded to represent the genetic code.

This DNA model is used to show that unlike the genetic code, that cannot be easily changed, the methylation or epigenetic pattern can potentially be altered with drug therapy. Epigenetic changes can also be used to identify cancer DNA for early detection and monitoring disease progression.

Cancer drug treatments that target these epigenetic mistakes offer new and exciting ways to treat cancer, giving hope to current and future cancer patients.

Read more from Kate in her article in The Conversation.

As a creator of such animations, the greatest satisfaction comes in watching a viewer realise that they are watching something that is real, and something that is actually occurring inside their bodies at that very point in time.
Kate Patterson

Biomedical Animator and Visual Science Communicator, Garvan Institute