Cellular Lego animations

Questions and answers with MIT's Lego educator.

With her team, Kathy Vandiver, director of the Community Outreach and Education Program at MIT’s Center for Environmental Health Sciences, creates eye-catching animations of cellular processes like meiosis, mitosis, and DNA translation and transcription, using Legos. These sophisticated simulations of what is going on in the cell are used as teaching aids for both school-aged and adult students, mainly to pique their interest in the subject matter at the beginning of a class.

Popular Science spoke to Dr. Vandiver about her Lego creations.

Above is one of Dr. Vandiver’s first videos, and her personal favorite. It shows translation, which is a cellular process in which proteins are synthesized. The piece of mRNA (messenger RNA) at the bottom of the video contains genetic information for building a protein. Each codon, which is a nucleotide triplet, in the mRNA sequence codes for an amino acid, which are the building blocks of proteins. The animation was made with photos from a Nikon CoolPix Camera. In all, 137 photos were animated at two frames per second using a demo version of Boinx software.

What first gave you the idea to make Lego animations of biological processes?

As a researcher turned public school teacher, it became obvious that cell processes were more difficult to understand than cell structures. Cell processes are particularly hard to master from the static diagrams found in books, too. So when I was designing the Lego molecules, I wanted to show how the molecules work in the cell—what they can do.

The animations came along later, as a bit of whimsy, after I had spent quite a bit of time designing the actual Lego molecules.

Actually the first animations of Lego chromosomes during cell division (mitosis and meiosis) were created by a couple of MIT grad students included Amanda Gruhl working at the Edgerton Center. The Lego Chromosome Set, like the DNA Set, was again designed to emphasize the BIG concepts. The major concept in mitosis is that this process creates genetically similar cells. This can be learned by your hands, because if the process is done right, the new cells will have the exact same Lego genes on them. The “before” and “after” looks the same. On the other hand, meiosis is the type of cell division that creates variation in the genetic makeup and the Lego bricks illustrate this process very well too.

Overall, in working with film, we learned that the animations could pique student interest. Amy Fitzgerald, the teacher at the MIT Edgerton Center, frequently uses the chromosome animation to start the class for the students on field trips. It is fun to juxtapose a real movie of a cell undergoing mitosis so that students can relate the dancing Lego structures to the living components that can also be seen dancing—the similar dance.

How did you get involved with Lego—is this project endorsed by the company? How are they involved?

I did get involved with Lego Education, basically because they were interested in several different models I had developed and field-tested in my school district in Massachusetts, including the turnkey features such as teacher guides and student lesson booklets. For several years, Lego Education sold the sets online and from their Lego robotics catalog under the name Lego Life Science. Recently, the company-wide decision to remove magnets from all Lego products as a safety precaution, has led to the removal of the first Lego DNA product from the market. However, there are many ways to produce the DNA product. It’s under discussion.

What was the first project you did? How did the Lego animations develop into what you are doing today?

The first project that really incorporates the Lego animations in a big way is actually just getting started. I obtained pilot funding from my research center, the Center for Environmental Health Sciences (CEHS) to co-develop an exhibit/classroom space with the MIT Museum, called “The Learning Lab: the Cell.” The Lego DNA transcription animation is featured on a DVD player at the MIT Museum. This space has been used to teach “How DNA Makes Proteins” with the Lego molecules involved in the cell process. Specifically, the Center at MIT studies molecules that rescue cells whose DNA molecules have become damaged. These are complex interactions, but even if the public understands some of the more basic biological processes better, they can make wiser choices in regard to their own health.

What are your current and future goals for the animations?

Our current and future goals for the animations are to incorporate this media into our next project, which is being funded by the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Our goal is to put all the instructions for recreating our museum exhibit’s posters, interactives, animations, and instructional programs on a set of DVDs. In this way, other science centers will be able to inexpensively reproduce “The Learning Lab: the Cell.” We like to call this our ‘cloning’ project, particularly because the space does subtlety represent a cell, with a large table at one end of the room being the nucleus where we do our Lego DNA work, and with several smaller tables as the protein factories (ribosomes) where the mRNA goes to produce the Lego proteins.

Compare the Lego version of mitosis, linked here and below, to this movie of a live cell dividing by mitosis. While this video is roughly the same length as the Lego version, the process actually takes around an hour—this video is a time lapse. The dark-colored bodies are the chromosomes (the word “chromosome” literally means “dark bodies”). The spindle fibers depicted by the green strings in the Lego video can’t be seen in this version due to the microscope lighting arrangement that was used.

How long does it take to create an animation?

To shoot a hundred or so pictures usually takes an hour or two. Setting up the lighting can takes time, as Lego bricks can be difficult to shoot well with their highly reflective surfaces. The real work comes after that, adding music and editing. I realize that Amanda Finkelburg gave some of the animations she created a kind of 1970s look and I don’t know how long it took for her to create these finishing touches.

How are the animations recorded—what is the technical process behind them?

Basically you take a lot of photos! We purchased a program for the Mac, which was inexpensive and yet quite adequate.

What are some of the settings where these are shown?

As mentioned earlier, these animations are used at MIT in various school outreach programs, for example with middle school students on field trips to the MIT Edgerton Center. I also use these animations regularly when teaching adults. As Director of the Outreach program for the Center for Environmental Health Sciences, I roll these the animations in teacher professional development workshops and also in nurse continuing education programs, which are focused on cell biology. Biology is a field that is rapidly changing, and many adults thrive on hands-on learning and good visualization techniques too, in order to pick up the concepts fast and be able to recall them easily.

Which animation is your personal favorite? Why?

The first version of the Lego animation of “translation” is my personal favorite. I set up on a tripod and shot 150 photos on my Nikon CoolPix Camera in my dining room. Translation is that process that takes place on a ribosome, a small speck inside a cell. Imagine the ribosome as a workbench, which pops together the subunits of proteins to create in a long continuous chain. That chain folds up to become a useful protein. The reason why I am so fond of this animation is it captures a couple of surprising steps and then makes them become completely logical to the viewer. For instance in one of the steps, the elongating protein chain is added onto the free end of the incoming protein subunit. (Most people think this happens the other way around!) I guess like this animation because the photo quality was pretty good, it was fun to produce on my own, and I knew I had a good story to tell with all of Lego molecules (mRNA, and tRNA and the amino acids) in the picture.

What animations projects are you working on now?

The animation project we are working now will utilize a new version of Lego DNA without magnets. We are creating an additional set of transcription and translation animations, the processes by which proteins are produced from DNA instructions. Magnets were originally used mimic the hydrogen bonds between the sides of the DNA ladder. (Hydrogen bonds are easily broken and reform—thus the magnets were appropriate.) However, the new Lego DNA has some great additional visual features, which emphasize molecular shape. The shapes fit like puzzle pieces when the two sides of the DNA ladder meet in the middle. So we are reshooting the animations and we are also thinking of ways to add some narration. I think this could work well, particularly if the sound tracks are selectable, allowing the viewer to control the amount of didactic information in the experience.

More Lego education videos

  • Translation: This is an updated version of the translation video, including catchy music. Former MIT student Amanda Finkelberg used a special degradation process to give the film an old-timey look.
  • Transcription: This video shows genetic transcription, which is how RNA is synthesized from DNA.

Note: neither of the DNA Lego sets (translation and transcription) are currently available for purchase because they are undergoing a redesign, so disregard the sales information in the videos.

  • Cell Division: Mitosis: In this type of cell division, a mother cell splits into two daughter cells, each with an identical set of chromosomes. This movie was made in QuickTime Pro from 108 shots from a Nikon D100 digital SLR with a 40-millimeter lens.
  • Cell Division: Meiosis: In meiosis, the point is to mix things up, creating two completely new cells and is a key part of sexual reproduction. This video was created in QuickTime Pro using 116 shots from a Nikon D100 DSLR.