The Royal Society’s annual Summer Science Exhibition is featuring an innovative take on virtual reality (VR) this year – using VR to study the elaborate structure of the genome. Designed through a collaboration between the University of London and Universita di Napoli, the project’s stated goal is to better under underlying genetic causes leading to common disease, including diabetes and anemia.
While traditional modeling techniques allow viewing the 3D structure of DNA on standard laptops and PCs, the program utilized for this application takes 3D modeling data and makes it viewable in VR. This provides a unique platform to visualize the intricate folds of DNA, and also interact with it through user commands.
The scientists are using a program called CSynth for this. It takes data previously collected on DNA and RNA, and makes it viewable in VR. A demo video of CSynth shows this in action, with a user virtually “unraveling” the complex folding structure (link). Ideally, this method will allow the investigators to better understand how the small changes in DNA folding can lead to disease. The team behind CSynth hopes to release the software as OpenSource to allow others to use it soon as well.
While much of the VR-healthcare news has centered on its use for helping treat patients, using VR to better see medical data in an interactive, immersive environment has also been noted. I have previously covered how surgeons have used mobile VR to plan complex cardiac procedures and how radiology data is being made viewable in VR. A recent VR conference I attended at the University of California at Irvine featured visualization of protein molecules through the Oculus Rift. These tools have the potential to be not just for interactive entertainment, but also for serious research, hopefully with positive outcomes for patients worldwide.