The Colour Palette of Biology and Model Deception

Scientists frequently employ personalised models to communicate their work; could this lead to misconceptions in biology? 

Writer: Marie Emilie Maeland
Editor: Sophie North
Artist: Rahel Kiss

An artist’s palette for biology extends from molecular laboratories into global media sources, such as Nature News and Science Magazine, who publish articles based on the latest research. Scientists aim to make their research understandable through models, often decorated, personalised and coloured for a global audience with scientific interest. Have their attempts succeeded or created unnoticed misconceptions in biology?

         Colour has been linked to learning and memory. Once an association with a colour is made, it is likely to ameliorate the chances of recall. This has encouraged us to assign colours to the molecular universe that might originally only be visible to the human eye in black and white. Colouring systems have relatively recently become useful ways to understand microscopic images or in silico diagrams of proteins from computer software, but have been utilised for a long time in ball-and-stick modelling kits. Even so, the potential colour holds for future uses in biology remains to be uncovered.

Elements began to be assigned colours in Corey and Pauling’s colouring system. Koltun extended their ideas by continuing to categorise other biological molecules by colour, eventually personalised by modern molecular modelling software such as Jmol and RasMol. A clear inspiration is drawn from the appearance of pure elements; hydrogen, a colourless gas, assigned white, sulphur coloured bright yellow like its powdered form, chlorine aligned with its green gas, and bromine its dark red-brown liquid. Nevertheless, the link is harder to identify for oxygen and nitrogen, red and blue respectively. Potentially, oxygen is portrayed in its haemoglobin-bound form in the blood which has a striking red colour, whereas nitrogen is blue because it is the main component of the atmosphere that our eyes perceive as blue. 

Colour seems to be widely adopted, but it can place some people at a disadvantage. Notably, colour blindness affects around 1 in 12 males and 1 in 200 females. Multiple sequence alignment (MSA) is a method that assesses the homology of protein sequences. To make biology more accessible to everyone, a new MSA shading technique has been developed to ensure inclusivity. The informative role of colour declines if colour-blind people cannot grasp its full benefit. 

         From a young age, we are taught a singular word that translates the wavelengths that our eyes receive. The various connotations associated with colour are also established: white as peaceful, yellow as happiness and red as dangerous. Therefore, it becomes second nature to connect colours with ideas. This is extremely useful for quick analysis, but it could make us jump to conclusions too quickly as a result of the author’s creativity or wanted effect. In short, colouring does simplify but labelling still helps to avoid any ambiguity.

         Biologists’ applications of colour range from designing protein images, tracking messenger RNA in cells and producing fluorescent organisms. This immense output of data is exhilarating and eye-catching. The colouring system makes the invisible visible, but at times conveys slight deviations from reality. Electron microscopy imaging does not reflect any colour, so why is SARS-CoV-2 known as a glowing red virus with crowned projections emanating from its membrane? Getting used to these types of images often causes mistakes in understanding that are overseen and left unnoticed. At the same time, it achieves the media’s goal of alerting and persuading the population to take the pandemic seriously. To what extent can we then say that modifying scientific information might benefit the greater good?

If we base our perception of data solely on its physical appearance, the key message might be altered due to colours highlighting certain aspects while veiling others. The undoing of these misunderstandings can take time, but it might not even be necessary to get the main idea across. The question remains: is filling in the lines of a biological colouring book a means to convey the truth behind scientific discoveries, or do complex ideas lose too much of their meaning through simplification?

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