PVCC biology class creates protein molecules using 3D printer

PVCC BIO 106 students present 3D-printed molecular models

Students in PVCC’s BIO 106 class recently partnered with faculty in the Electronics and Computer Technology Program to create three-dimensional molecular models of several pigment-related proteins using PVCC’s 3D printer.

“Molecules like DNA and protein are too small to see with a microscope, so their structure and function can seem highly abstract,” said Anne Allison, PVCC biology professor. “We wanted our students to be able to study and investigate the mysteries of molecules in a tangible way.”

According to Allison, the students began their work by delving into scientific research with the help of PVCC reference librarian Laura Skinner. They began by accessing atomic-level structural data from the Protein Data Bank, the global repository of biological molecular structures. Using this data, students created digital protein models utilizing a command-line, open-access software called Jmol.   

“Students with more programming experience shared their knowledge with less experienced peers, and everyone appreciated firsthand how computer science facilitates the discipline of biology,” said Allison.

Following their research, students collaborated with Eric Bredder, assistant professor of electronics at PVCC, to print the models. Bredder worked closely with students on the scale and position of the 3D models and educated students about the 3D-printing process, which used two-dimensional layers to print three-dimensional structures.

“This project was possible because of the small, focused nature of the honors course,” said Allison. “It was successful because of PVCC’s excellent embedded librarian program and because of the expertise and enthusiasm of faculty like Eric Bredder. By creating these models, we were able to think about the invisible molecular world more concretely. These models gave substance to our thoughts and allowed us to ask new questions we couldn’t have imagined before.”

Students presented their models to student peers in BIO 101 classes at the end of the fall 2017 semester. According to Allison, the presentation allowed students to fully realize the depth of their understanding of the molecular world.

“Having spent an entire semester immersed in a molecular modeling project, they spoke in a facile manner about complex atomic-level details,” Allison said. “They saw how great their knowledge had become and realized that even the most complicated scientific things can be understood through processes like interdisciplinary work and collaboration.”