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Molecular spelunking: exploration of biological structures in a virtual reality environment

Friday, September 15, 2017 — Poster Session IV

1:00 p.m. – 2:30 p.m.
FAES Terrace


  • J Tyrwhitt-Drake
  • P Cruz
  • M McCarthy
  • D Hurt


Virtual reality (VR) combines a computer-generated environment with wearable hardware (stereoviewer goggles) to create an immersive, interactive experience; users can view the virtual world in all directions and interact with virtual features. Traditionally used in gaming and entertainment, new and diverse applications for VR are emerging. We posited that VR could bring value to structural biology research. To test this hypothesis, we launched digital representations of protein structures in an HTC Vive VR headset, using UCSF ChimeraX (prerelease v0.1). Users were asked to complete a short survey before and after a trial of at least 5 minutes. Naïve users adapted to the virtual setting in one to two minutes, and were able to walk through and around the molecule and to manipulate its position and scale with wireless controllers. An operator provided vocal instructions and altered the molecular representation using the ChimeraX command line interface on the PC. Users reported greater comprehension of a structure, the spatial relationships between its objects, and its corresponding function regardless of the individual’s familiarity with the subject matter. Users with expert knowledge of a molecule often identified previously unobserved features, despite having three or more years of research visualizing the structure with traditional modalities. These findings demonstrate a practical and valuable scientific application for VR. We foresee more widespread use in research, especially in antibody modelling and drug development. Current work includes integration with voice controls and “multiplayer” VR platforms. Technological advances will facilitate real-time visualization of structural changes and molecular dynamics simulations.

Category: Computational Biology