Mar 21, 2009

Cellular Lego Animations

Questions and answers with MIT's Lego educator
by Brooke Borel

With her team, Kathy Vandiver, director of the Community Outreach and Education Program at MIT's Center for Environmental Health Sciences, creates eye-catching animations of cellular processes like meiosis, mitosis, and DNA translation and transcription, using Legos. These sophisticated simulations of what is going on in the cell are used as teaching aids for both school-aged and adult students, mainly to pique their interest in the subject matter at the beginning of a class.

Popular Science spoke to Dr. Vandiver about her Lego creations.

Above is one of Dr. Vandiver's first videos, and her personal favorite. It shows translation, which is a cellular process in which proteins are synthesized. The piece of mRNA (messenger RNA) at the bottom of the video contains genetic information for building a protein. Each codon, which is a nucleotide triplet, in the mRNA sequence codes for an amino acid, which are the building blocks of proteins. The animation was made with photos from a Nikon CoolPix Camera. 137 photos were animated at two frames per second using a demo version of Boinx software.

What first gave you the idea to make Lego animations of biological processes?

As a researcher turned public school teacher, it became obvious that cell processes were more difficult to understand than cell structures. Cell processes are particularly hard to master from the static diagrams found in books, too. So when I was designing the Lego molecules, I wanted to show how the molecules work in the cell-- what they can do.

The animations came along later, as a bit of whimsy, after I had spent quite a bit of time designing the actual Lego molecules.

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