The disease that has put the entire world on pause is easily communicable, capable of stowing silently away in certain hosts and killing others, and, to the human eye, entirely invisible. In media parlance it’s become our “invisible enemy”: a nightmarish, oneiric force that can’t be seen, heard, or touched. But with the use of modeling software, scientists and illustrators have begun to visualize coronavirus, turning it into something that can be seen, understood, and, hopefully, eventually vanquished by science. Many of us imagine the virus as a sphere radiating red spikes—but why? Certain elements of these visualizations are based on the way coronavirus appears under a microscope, and others are choices that were made, an exercise of artistic license.
On January 21, CDC illustrators Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins were asked to illustrate the novel coronavirus for use in press briefings and other media materials. Eckert came up with what she called a “beauty shot” of the virus molecule (referred to in the scientific community as a “virion”), a round globule with the crown-like array of spiked proteins that give the virus its name. Eckert and Higgins experimented with a number of color schemes until they settled on red and gray with orange and yellow accents. “It just really stood out,” Eckert told the New York Times. Since then, the illustration has saturated news outlets around the world.
“Their illustration kind of looks handsome,” said Dr. Timothy Mastro, former deputy director for science in HIV/AIDS prevention at the CDC. “It has a certain symmetry to it, an appealing design … [a virus like] Ebola’s just this twisted-up piece of spaghetti, not nearly as attractive.” Mastro recalls having seen artistic renderings of the HIV molecule on posters at the conferences he attended and on the covers of journals. The image, a sphere studded with spiked proteins, similar to the CDC rendering of coronavirus, gave a certain “character” to the disease he was researching. But in the lab, Mastro concerned himself exclusively with images of the actual virus taken by means of a process called X-ray crystallography. The process, in which the crystalline structure of the virion causes a beam of X-rays to diffract in many directions, allows researchers to construct an image of the molecule. The result is a ghostly black-and-white tracing of the invisible.
Mastro showed me the basis for all the colorful renderings I’d seen online: an electron micrograph of the virus, obtained by bombarding virions with a finely focused electron beam. The molecules looked like the cartoon amoebas you’d expect to see in a fifties film reel about germs. But they were the virus qua virus, with its spikes and spherical body. Mastro explained that the spiked proteins connect to receptors on the outside of healthy cells so the virus can overtake the cell body and use it to replicate itself. A variation of these proteins, produced over years of replication, enabled the coronavirus to evolve from a harmless common cold into something capable of devastating the upper respiratory system. I asked Mastro why so many of the illustrations of the coronavirus look different from the CDC version, and one another, given that everyone was working off the same micrograph. “Artistic license,” he said.
Nick Klein and Jamie Vitzthum, part of a group of scientific illustrators, animators, and developers called iSO-FORM, thought very deliberately about the protein spikes in their rendering of coronavirus. The E-protein, the orange spike in the rendering, is taken from models of the SARS-CoV virus, an ancestor of coronavirus that was first reported in Asia in 2003 (the scientific term for coronavirus is SARS-CoV-2). The concept for the M-protein, the green spike, was obtained through something called “predictive neural net processing,” which maps out the full structures of proteins before they have been determined in the lab. Additionally, Klein told me that coronavirus is pleomorphic, meaning it can vary in shape. To communicate that, he and Vitzthum rendered it as ellipsoidal. “Our editorial choices in colors and style emphasize the virus’s structural complexity and aggressive protein configuration, but also hint at its frail nature outside the body,” Klein told me. “With all the fear, death, and tragedy it has caused, it is not a living thing and has no capacity for malice … with perseverance and innovation, humanity can overcome this thing.”
Melanie Connolly doesn’t completely agree with Klein’s assertion that the virus isn’t a living thing. “People go back and forth on this,” she said. “Some people think viruses aren’t living because they can’t replicate themselves without another organism’s machinery. But then bacteria use the same method of replication, and they’re considered living things.” Her rendering of the virus is all pastel purples and blues. The “conformation,” or shape, of the protein spikes is clearly visible as a three-pointed braid. Although just as symmetrical as the CDC rendering, Connolly’s is far more pleasant, like a space crusader’s mute sidekick, a friendly being from another planet—the virion does seem to be, in a manner of speaking, alive. The colors were designed to match what Connolly calls her “aesthetic brand”: she does a lot of illustration work in the realm of women’s health, and wanted to carry the pastels over to this project. “The audience [for this illustration] is scientifically minded, has an interest in the research, but aren’t necessarily researchers themselves,” she said. She imagines the advanced high schoolers in her summer microbiology courses would be particularly interested in this rendering. Connolly sees her illustration work as a form of public education, describing her virion as a simplified version of “Moonlight Sonata”: the beginning pianist learns how to play the basics before being introduced to more challenging versions of the piece. Connolly’s virion meets the scientifically curious right where they are by being rigorous but not prohibitively complex. This is, I imagine, one of the major advantages of artistic license.
When Jane Whitney and I spoke, I offered her Mastro’s postulation that all depictions of coronavirus differed because of artistic license. She said there were reasons for difference beyond that: people sometimes don’t understand or don’t want to be constrained by molecular visualization, the process by which software is used to create an accurate 3D model of a protein structure. “My [protein] spikes are definitely an abstracted representation of the actual spike structure,” she said. Whitney’s drawing of a coronavirus molecule binding to a healthy cell is two-dimensional and highly stylized: it’s easy to understand, like a graphic from an AP biology textbook. This doesn’t mean that Whitney overlooked molecular visualization, however. She showed me the scientific papers she’d pored over to understand the structure of coronavirus proteins and the organization of SARS-CoV-2 RNA (a virus’s form of DNA). She has used 3D rendering to create a kaleidoscopic and rather lovely animation of a SARS-COV-2 protein spike.
Then she showed me how she’d simplified 3D renderings of the three-stranded, torch-shaped protein spikes created by someone else into what looked like a bundle of differently colored Y’s.
Jonathan Corum, who illustrated the virus for the New York Times, also wanted to produce a stylized version of the virion that would be easily digestible by a wide audience while remaining rigorous in terms of molecular structure. He had begun with the CDC illustration and then “smoothed out the bumps and stylized the spikes.” His virion has the feel of a soccer ball that’s acquired superpowers as the result of radioactive fallout. “[Since] the coronavirus is named after its crownlike halo of spikes, adjusting the spikes is an easy way to give the virus some personality,” Corum told me. “Personality” here means any detail—whether it be the color palette or the shape of the spikes or the width of the sphere—that the viewer’s eye can affix itself to and remember. “The CDC illustration is both yarn-like and sinister, which is an interesting combination, but I wanted something crisper with a bright red that almost vibrates onscreen,” he said.
Veronica Falconieri Hays created, like Whitney and Corum, a detailed infographic of the virus’s process of fusing with and infecting healthy cells. Unlike Whitney’s or Corum’s, Falconieri Hays’s rendering is three-dimensional and intended as a reference for fellow medical illustrators and scientists. Falconieri Hays’s sophisticated-looking spikes describe “S1/S2 domain difference” and “sites of glycosylation”—certainly more detail than I’d seen on any other rendering of the virus—but my humanities brain was distracted by the pleasant-looking cotton candy nature of the spikes and the relative smallness of the sphere. Falconieri Hays said she’d consulted the CDC rendering as well as an illustration made by a professor of computational biology named David Goodsell before embarking on the twenty-seven-hour process of research and illustration. While the structure of Falconieri Hays’s spikes is based on studies of SARS-CoV-2 proteins obtained through cryogenic electron microscopy (cryo-EM) (an alternative to X-ray crystallography where electrons are used to illuminate molecules kept at cryogenic temperatures) the body of the virion is based off images of the older and more researched SARS-CoV, simply because there isn’t similar data yet for SARS-CoV-2. “There’s still a lot unknown,” she said, adding that many scientists have just recently pivoted to coronavirus research. “There’s so much to worry about and so little to do these days—[this illustration] was a small thing that I could do to contribute with my particular skillset.”
In an attempt to locate Falconieri Hays’s influences, I searched for Goodsell’s illustration, expecting to find an anatomized rendering of the virion. What I found instead was an intoxicatingly beautiful, quasi-psychedelic painting: something you would be as likely to see through a microscope as through hallucinogens. Goodsell—who has produced similarly stunning images of Ebola, zika, and HIV, among other things—visits, like many illustrators, a protein-visualization site called Protein Data Bank for structural reference and PubMed for research on viruses before he draws them. He then sketches the virion—the large picture first, small details last—and paints the sketch with watercolors. “I find that the cartoony, flat-color approach that I use makes it easier to comprehend the whole scene,” he wrote in an article for the Journal of Biocommunication.
When I told Goodsell that I thought his painting of coronavirus was a work of art, he gently reminded me that the illustration is “very much tied to science … I always want [the illustrations] to be as accurate as possible, and I want them to help people understand the biological processes that are shown.” He hopes to put a face to coronavirus, to help the public conceive of it as “a physical entity, with size, shape and properties that can be understood.” The motivation and constraints for art, he said, are entirely different, though he does appreciate it when viewers recognize his love of color and design. When comparing the CDC rendering of coronavirus to Goodsell’s, art critic Philip Kennicott described the former as “clearly emphasizing the threat this virus poses to those who refuse to, or cannot, socially distance themselves,” and the latter as “a thing apart, to be studied, anatomized, and understood.”
Goodsell is active in using his illustration to spread scientific awareness of coronavirus. In an article he coauthored called “An Integrative Approach to SARS Coronavirus Outreach,” he includes templates of his virion colored in by children and adults. Comments on his illustration range from “Things seem less scary when they’re colorful” to “Art is the work of transforming fear and pain into beauty.” Parents wrote him about helping their kids declassify coronavirus as an invisible enemy and having family conversations about what the virus looks like and how it “just requires the right tools to see.” In the early stages of the pandemic, one parent wrote Goodsell about a child who was sick with worry, unable to comprehend why his school was going to close soon. “So I told him all about viruses, what they are and what they do,” the parent wrote. The next day, the boy arrived at school feeling much better, carrying in his backpack enough coloring book copies of Goodsell’s virion for his entire class.
Rebekah Frumkin’s novel, The Comedown, was published by Henry Holt in 2018. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at Southern Illinois University.