by Munro Passmore
Last week I participated in the biennial John Innes Dubrovnik course on natural products. Among many topics, we discussed the biosynthesis of polyketides and non-ribosomal peptides. Having been fascinated – but also mystified – by the process for decades, I took delight in seeing a short animation of the process created by Munro Passmore. Fortunately, he accepted my invitation to write this short description and to share the animation with the STC audience. –Roberto
For general audiences, science can often seem impenetrable to understand because of its inherent scale and complexity. This is particularly true in the field of natural products – where we seek to understand the processes microscopic organisms undertake to make molecules we later use as antibiotics, anti-cancer agents and more.
Due to the vast number of steps involved in these processes, and the fact you can't physically see anything happening, explaining what happens can seem an impossible task! That's why earlier this year Greg Challis, Lona Alkhalaf, and I set out to make an animation explaining the assembly of natural products – penicillin for example – as simply and visually attractive as possible.
We aimed to strip back the biosynthetic process to its core parts: explaining that bacteria take small "building blocks" from their surroundings and put them together to form chains with varying degrees of complexity. Using the commonly used metaphor of factory assembly lines, we created a 3D animation (view the animation here) to demonstrate to general audiences the fascinating mechanisms employed by microbes to create essential medicines used all around the world. This tool has already proven invaluable in starting conversations about natural products and providing a springboard to more nuanced discussions of enzyme-catalysed reactions.
We're hoping to continue our mission to make our research more accessible with more visual work in the future, and hope that this is a small step in improving scientific literacy across the board!
Munro Passmore is a PhD student in the Challis & Jenner Groups at the University of Warwick, UK investigating the biosynthesis of histone-deacetylase inhibitors by bacteria. Outside of the lab, he is passionate about science communication and works with a variety of groups to create research-centric media.