What happens when the desire to teach a scientific concept meets appreciation for science fiction film? In the right hands, it's something pretty wonderful.

Bioengineering professor Don Ingber, founder of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, recently got to thinking about a world in which there is skepticism and even fear of his field. "Science is the pursuit of the unknown. We have a responsibility to reach out to the public and convey that excitement of exploration and discovery,” he said. “Fortunately, the film industry is already great at doing that."

That thought prompted Ingber to team up with molecular biophysicist and professional animator Charles Reilly, a staff scientist at the Wyss Institute who had previously worked with director Peter Jackson. Their goal was to create a film that would tell the story of a biological process accurate to the atomic level. What they produced was considerably more than an entertaining exercise.

“Applying an artistic process to science frees you from the typically reductionist approach of analyzing one particular hypothesis and teaches you a different way of observing things,” said Reilly. “As a result, we not only created an entertaining tool for public outreach; we conducted robust theoretical biology research that led to new scientific insight into molecular-scale processes."

The scientists used a Star Wars motif for their depiction of human fertilization, in which sperm compete for dominance to be the first to fertilize an egg. The egg became a stand-in for the Death Star.

Although the patterns and mechanics of swimming sperm have been studied and described in scientific literature, visually showing the accurate movement of a sperm tail required the creation of something new — a multi-scale biological model that would maintain accuracy at sizes ranging from the cellular level to the atomic level. Rather than constructing a linear model and using it to zoom in or out, they built the model at different scales simultaneously. Then, they repeatedly checked it against scientific data, modifying as necessary until the pieces fit together.

“This is really a design thinking approach, where you have to be willing to throw out your model if it doesn't work correctly when you integrate it with data from another scale," Reilly said.

"Not only is our physics-based simulation and animation system as good as other data-based modeling systems, it led to new scientific insight,” said Ingber. That insight, focused around the way protein motors move and a better understanding of the defects that affect infertility, has just been published in ACS Nano.

"Both science and art are about observation, interpretation, and communication,” said Reilly. “The more people engage with science, the more likely humanity is to solve the world's big problems…I also hope that this paper and video encourage more scientists to take an artistic approach when they start a new project, not necessarily to create a narrative-based story, but to explore their idea the way an artist explores a canvas, because that makes the mind open to a different form of serendipity that can lead to unexpected results."