The 3D printing revolution in the biological and medical sciences are developing synthetics and treatments faster than the news media can keep up. Some of the advancements, like experimental 3D printed brain cells, sound like something out of a Sci-Fi novel. Although the benefits of 3D printing to advancements in human health are numerous, the technology is also helping biologists better understand the topics covered in Biology 101—namely, the basic structures of biological molecules.
Some of the smallest life-giving objects known to man, the structure and behavior of biological molecules have been studied with various forms of 2D modeling for decades. But when it comes to understanding many aspects of these molecules, the old fashioned computer models aren’t up to snuff.
Benefits of 3D Molecular Models
The most obvious reason is that no visual model can replace the experience of touching and holding a physical model. With 3D printing, scientists are able to create accurate physical models of different types of proteins or molecules. This gives researchers the capability to study the interaction between virus molecules and the human body more closely, which could lead to new advancements in treatment in the coming years. For example, Dr. Arthur Olson of the Molecuar Graphics Laboratory at the Scripps Research Institute is using 3D printing to better understand how HIV functions.
2D simulations also lack the ability to accurately model molecular behavior. For example, proteins and molecules interact on an incredibly small scale, with molecules often passing through proteins. 3D models are more encouraging in the study of molecular behavior, as they allow for accurate dimensions of a protein’s inner structures.
The Future of Molecular Modeling
This sounds a bit more Sci-Fi than the rest, but 3D printing technology can also aid scientist in designing artificial molecules—that is, molecules that never existed in the biological world. Proteins are very sensitive to their surroundings, and don’t fare well in extreme conditions. Scientists are already in the process of developing synthetic molecules that have a more robust disposition than regular proteins, but function in a similar way. This is incredibly beneficial, as proteins can be used to detect poisons and other molecules.
The models that scientists are able to develop of different molecular structures are adding to a growing database of knowledge, as the National Institutes of Health hosts a 3d print exchange that helps researchers share these developments and give instructions for printing new models. This will definitely speed up the pace of research in the area, as scientists can easily access and build upon the heavy lifting of other researchers.
Beyond the scientific advancements that can come from these 3D printed microstructures, the models are perfect for the classroom. They can be manipulated in realistic ways, and give students a visual that’s more than a step above other types of models. Allowing students to simulate the interaction between proteins and other molecules with their hands can be pivotal for their conceptual understanding.
The Molecuar Graphics Laboratory at the Scripps Research Institute