Protein structure caught in sculpture: the art of Mike Tyka

March 29, 2012 § 1 Comment

KscA potassium channel. Photo by Mike Tyka

The shiny gold twists caught my eye one day as I quickly scrolled through a social media site. What were those?

In stopping to look more closely, I discovered the gorgeous work of Mike Tyka, who makes sculptures of protein structures. He has so far made sculptures of a potassium channel and ubiquitin. It was the helices of the potassium channel that had caught my attention. It is a model of the KcsA channel, a membrane-spanning potassium channel with eight alpha helices.

I emailed Tyka to ask him about his work. Below are his answers to my questions, which have been lightly edited for style, length and clarity.

1) What’s your day job?

I’m a postdoc at the University of Washington in Seattle, with professor David Baker. I work on computational protein structure prediction, writing algorithms for conformational space search on large parallel computers.

2) What gave you the inspiration to make sculptures of protein  structures?

I’ve been working on proteins for nearly a decade, concentrating on structural aspects. I’ve seen a great number of crystal structures and have grown to love and appreciate the beauty of protein folds. They are graceful and complicated, regular but often surprising, and often symmetric or pseudo-symmetric.

I’ve been curating a small blog called, collecting pretty proteins I come across. At some point, it evolved into the idea of making physical, artistic expressions of the folds.

3) How did you learn to work with metal for sculpting?

I’ve been involved with art/tech making for a while in my spare time. I co-founded GroovLabs, which built a 30-foot, playable Rubik’s cube that is currently on display at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle. During that project, I taught myself how to work with metal.

I had a really good time, so I decided to start a community art workshop in Seattle with some friends of mine, which has grown into a reasonably large shop and art community by now. That’s where I started studying metal in my spare time and where I do all my work [now]. Metal is a fascinating material once you dig below the surface.

4) What do you look for in a protein structure to to render it into metal?

Ubiquitin. Photo by Mike Tyka

The choice is determined by a number of factors. The process of making these is something I developed over time and that is still evolving. I typically aim for the most interesting structure I can find that is within my currently manageable size and complexity range.

For example, right now I’m working on a beta-barreled porin molecule, which is larger and has more individual secondary structure elements than my previous two pieces. This would not have been possible to make in a reasonable time without a bunch of custom tools that I only made this winter after learning much about the process during the first two pieces, which were made summer of 2011.

I’m thinking about larger proteins now and ones involving symmetry. Symmetry is difficult because you have to make  exact copies of the subunits; otherwise, the brain of the viewer has a hard time spotting the symmetry. I need more jigs and custom tools before I embark on that.

The KcsA channel *is* fourfold symmetrical and was done by eye and hand. It has OK symmetry, but I think it could be a lot better.

Other than technical issues, I look for both aesthetic beauty as well as medical or human relevance. I can’t always satisfy all requirements, but I try to find proteins that intersect at least most of my criteria.

5) How large are your sculptures?

The scale is roughly 4 Angstroms to an inch. The two sculptures I made last year are about 16 to 24 inches tall roughly, including the base.

I hope to make ones as big as 3 to 4 feet by the end of the year at the same scale.

6) Is there anything you’ve learned about yourself as a  sculptor or a scientist?

That’s a hard question. I’ve only been doing it for a little over a year.

I work exclusively with computers for my scientific work, and I realize that I’ve really missed working with my hands. I love the tactility of making art. A huge area of our brains is devoted to our hands and, in the modern world, we really underuse them.

Ubiquitin's close-up. Photo by Mike Tyka

Ubiquitin's close-up. Photo by Mike Tyka

I also learned that the process of science and art are much closely related then most people realize. But that is a whole other conversation!

7) What are you working on next?

I’m currently working on a porin molecule. There are some pictures of the process here

8) Any thoughts on selling?

Yes, I would absolutely sell them or even make sculptures on request.

It would be awesome to be able to install a few at universities’ or pharmaceutical companies’ lobbies or even public places.

A major motivating factor of my work is that I want to make the public more aware of just how stunningly gorgeous the machines of life are.

I’m inspired by people like Drew Berry or David Goodsell. I think education of the public by making science accessible is really important. Science is moving way too fast these days for most people to keep up.

Public perception ultimately decides the fate and funding of science. It’s vital for science itself to keep the world inspired and informed.

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