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24 Nov 2019

Genomics education steps into virtual reality in ‘Cell Explorer’

Virtual reality experience developed by a Garvan-led team allows users to explore the life inside a cell.

Kate Patterson

When trying to visualise the inside of a human cell, most will think back to a static image from a high school biology textbook. Yet in reality, all components inside a cell are constantly in motion, bustling with activity.

A new virtual reality experience, developed by biomedical animator Dr Kate Patterson from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research and Mark Arrebola (Garvan Institute, 3D Visualisation and Aesthetic Laboratory at UNSW Sydney), bridges the gap between the textbook and real life.

The team’s immersive virtual reality game Cell Explorer fuses scientific data, with interaction, game design and 3D animation, allowing users to ‘step inside’ a cell – through a virtual reality headset.

The team demonstrated their game at the Virtual-Reality Continuum and its Application in Industry (VRCAI) Conference this month.

“Genomics can feel like an abstract concept to many,” says Dr Patterson. “What we’ve done is represent scientific information as accurately as possible, but in an engaging way, as a hands-on experience to make genomics more understandable.”

A walk along your DNA

The game begins much like the story of Alice in Wonderland – in a virtual Garvan Institute laboratory foyer, the user ‘drinks’ a potion that shrinks them to microscopic size. From there, they embark on a journey through the busy life inside a cell, teeming with molecules and structures that keep the cell functioning. Then, much like Alice through the rabbit hole, the user slips into the cell’s nucleus, which contains a vast number of dynamic DNA helices.

A person’s individual genome – their own DNA instructions or recipe – encodes all of the information needed to make and run every cell in the body.

In Cell Explorer, participants use hand controllers to build a DNA helix base by base (the individual units of DNA). They can then observe, with feedback through hand controllers, the processes of gene activation or deactivation through transcription enzymes that appear larger-than-life.

Genomics education in 3D

The aim of the Cell Explorer is to engage and educate visitors about genomics research happening at the Garvan Institute, the developers say.

It is primarily targeted at adults, with an interest but no formal training in science, but with virtual reality games emerging as a popular educational tool, Dr Patterson says Cell Explorer provides a compelling framework for teaching genomics to people of all ages.

“Virtual reality is crucial in this context – it provides an opportunity to visualise what physics just doesn’t allow us to see. We hope it will provide a more meaningful and memorable way for people to engage with research,” says Dr Patterson.

Cell Explorer is currently available at the Cell Observatory at the Garvan Institute and the team is developing a mobile version that will be available for download in early 2020. Book a public tour to experience Cell Explorer yourself.