Dendritic Cell Dance

(February 9th, 2017) A cartoon video by French cell biologist, Matthieu Piel, won the first prize at a recent science conference. He tells us more about the making of the video and the importance of science communication.

Many of us have had bruises throughout our lifetimes. But how many of us have stopped and asked why these bruises didn’t kill us? A video submitted by Matthieu Piel's lab to the ASCB's Cell Dance video competition describes exactly this: how a dendritic cell is able to come to the site of skin damage and initiate defence mechanisms against infection. As part of the immune system, dendritic cells are able to engulf foreign particles, such as bacteria, and present parts of it to a different type of immune cell – the T cell. Once T cells recognise these foreign particles, they launch a counter-attack against that particular infection, and thus protect us from disease.

Piel’s video is a highly visual representation of the tissues and cells encountered by a dendritic cell. The drawings came from a friend of Matthieu Piel’s, the talented cartoonist Renaud Chabrier. Dendritic cell movement is explained in lay audience terms, using cell microscopy images and real recordings from the lab. The video also includes commentaries by different members of the Piel lab.

How much time did it take Piel to make the video? “When I could see how to tell the story, from the movies I had gathered, I simply wrote all the spoken text, on a plane, in about one hour, and indicated the images that would go with it. When I got at my friend's [Renaud Chabrier] place, we put the recorded text over images, filmed my hand and because he is a genius with after-effects and had, on his side, prepared drawings and short animations, there was an entire movie made after just a few hours of work.” So here is the answer: passion and good team work are the direct path to success!

But what prompted Piel to study cell motility and polarization in the first place? “My fascination goes primarily to the cell. A cell is the smallest entity that we call 'alive', and yet, it is so close to the molecular world. What makes the difference between a solution of molecules and a cell? One of the most obvious 'alive'-like feature of cells is their movement. They are made of a motile material that uses chemical energy, deforms and self-constructs and repairs. So one difference between a solution of molecules and a cell is that the latter moves because it consumes energy and has an internal organisation, and this internal organisation follows a major spatial axis, at the whole cell level, which we call 'cell polarity'.”

Winning the Cell Dance competition has ony whetted the duo's appetite for more science communication projects. Plans are already shaping up. For example, Piel and Chabrier, since they were kids, have been inspired by the French science magazine La Hullotte. “We like this model and we would like to make one about cells, and the micro-world, that we call 'GLobul', first issue March/April this year. We will translate it to English for the summer. It will have nice stories and drawings about cells - starting with the dendritic cell, of course!” says Piel. Chabrier adds: “Drawing is a wonderful tool for science transmission. In modern times, 2D schemas, photography, video and 3D images have proved extremely useful but nothing compares to the unique efficiency that drawing provides for focussing and orienting the viewer’s attention. I hope that this magazine will help the readers re-discover how drawing can collaborate with language and science in order to pay keen attention to our world and its amazing phenomena, and from there on gain a deeper and richer understanding of it.”

“The second project is with my colleague Carsten Janke, a specialist of the cytoskeleton, and more specifically of microtubules. He and Renaud want to make a nice art/science book about the cytoskeleton and how it drives internal organisation of the cell. I think here they have in mind some books with a high level of scientific content, but with enough explanations and nice drawings to be of interest to any person with enough curiosity. So not low level science”, says Piel.

When asked what his driving force for science communication is, he says: “Get people to know more about science, especially about cells, which are very poorly known by the general public - although they hold the secret to life. As far as life is concerned, they are as important as a scientific topic, as stars for cosmology, or molecules for chemistry. No life without cells - as far as we know! And we want to make it good scientifically, and entertaining at the same time - good humour, nice drawings. All the qualities that kids - and older people, who are not boring adults - love in comic books and animation movies”.

Matthieu's words are another reminder that science communication is important, because if we don’t change youth's perception of the fascinating world inside our bodies and cells now, then who will, and when?

Nadejda Capatina

Picture (taken from the cartoon video): Renaud Chabrier

Last Changes: 03.07.2017