Illini Insider | Cell visualization coming to a ‘Minecraft’ game near you

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Welcome to “Illini Insider,” your regular dose of University of Illinois news from beat writer Luke Taylor. Fresh out of college himself, he’s always looking for story tips, photo ideas and social media mentions. Email him at [email protected] and he’ll give chase.

Imagine if a biology teacher could take you on a tour of the inside of a cell, show you the functions of each part and even let you experiment with how that cell reacts to different substances in real time.

Now imagine if you could do that in Minecraft.

Professors Zaida Luthey-Schulten and Martin Gruebele are working on a way to make that happen – and the similarity to “The Magic School Bus” isn’t lost on them.

“You know who funded that show? The National Science Foundation,” said Luthey-Schulten.

That’s exactly who the two professors have been talking to for the last year and a half, going through round after round of proposals and questions, to get $30 million in funding for a new NSF Science and Technology Center for Quantitative Cell Biology here at UI.

They couldn’t have done it alone, they said, highlighting the center’s extensive list of members from UI, other institutions across the world and industry partners.

From sharing relevant research to working on the grant proposal itself, there are already dozens of people who have worked to make the QCB center a reality.

The proposal process to get funding from the NSF was extensive, but Gruebele pointed out that some work was to be expected for $30 million.

Gruebele and Luthey-Schulten remembered the time difference between them and other members of the project ended up being helpful when they had to answer 18 questions between 5 p.m. one day and 9 a.m. the next.

After staying up to fill in the answers, the group in America sent the list overseas where their colleagues were just starting the day could look it over.

“I think they [the NSF] were surprised. It was like the size of the proposal coming back again,” Luthey-Schulten said. “I always tell my students ‘penalty for asking a question is you have to read the answer.’”

Now that the center has been approved, the team hopes to bring in researchers from all over to work on cell visualization.

Right now, they have created models visualizing simple cells at various levels of resolution, but the higher and more accurate resolutions can only run processes for fractions of a second.

Lower resolutions can run for longer and thus maybe show more of the effects of an experiment, but then there isn’t as much helpful detail in the model.

These are scientists who have equipment that can allow them to watch a single molecule as it moves around within a cell; they’re all about detail.

One of the main goals of the center will be to continue improving simulations of the cells to be able to test how those cells react to different stimuli.

For practical use, that means that someone developing a drug could get an accurate idea of how a human would react to it down to the cellular level without having to actually try it out on anyone.

In the future, Luthey-Schulten and Gruebele say this could be used to simulate entire organs or even the entire body.

But what about Minecraft?

In the much nearer future, the QCB center plans to release a version of the cell model as a Minecraft world which gamers can explore.

The idea is that students (or anyone, really) could interact with the cell in a three-dimensional space and get a better idea of how it works.

That educational value is a big deal, but they’re also hoping to drive interest because it’s just flat-out cool.

“Some of these things are not stuff that’s obvious to people, like that you can have a career making video games that simulate cells,” Gruebele said. “It’s kind of nice because you can put it out there and people at a young age will realize there are real options and you can do this kind of thing for a living.”

The current model that you can tour in Minecraft is already pretty complex, allowing you to get inside the different parts of a cell, but the researchers plan to keep improving upon the idea and make it possible to run different realistic experiments in the game.

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