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Slam dance. Dancers perform HIT, a quartet inspired by movements of molecules within cells.

William Cameron

Bodystorming: Dance Grooves Show How Molecules Move

Inside a chain-link cage, a handful of men and women walk, run, and spin, creating a mesmerizing dance. But these dancers are also doing science, testing hypotheses of how big molecules move within a cell. After exploring many different scientific questions via such balletic movement, the scientist-dancer team that jointly came up with this method now has a new paper explaining how scientists can use groups of athletic young people to understand the world of molecules.

The collaboration between David Odde, a University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, biomedical engineer, and Carl Flink, the artistic director of Black Label Movement and the head of the university's theater and dance department, started when both received small grants from the university's Institute for Advanced Study to study the concept of time. Odde and his brother Thomas were studying catastrophe in movies, and Flink was working on a dance about an iron ore ship sinking in Lake Superior.

Odde's research is on microtubules, part of the cell's internal skeleton. Microtubules grow by adding on subunits—until, at some point, they abruptly stop growing and begin to lose subunits. "That process of going from growing to shortening is very abrupt," Odde says. He and Flink came up with the idea of using dancers to convey how that catastrophic change happens in the cell, and The Moving Cell Project was born.

Molecules constantly bump into each other as they drift around the cell. It's part of how chemical reactions happen. For Flink, the biggest problem was figuring out how people could do that safely. First, they tried padding, playing around with sumo wrestler suits rented from a party supply store. But they made people too clumsy. Then they looked at military-grade body armor.

"That really takes you to some very odd, unique, and sometimes disturbing Web sites," Flink says.

But armor is expensive. "We realized that maybe we were just going in the wrong direction in terms of technology," he says. "Let's just go in the opposite direction and learn how we can hit each other." He and another company member started experimenting. "We were literally sitting in the studio figuring out, can I punch you in the stomach, how does that work, and can you kick me and can I tackle you? And we started looking at the technique of doing that without injuring each other."

They came up with ways to run into each other safely—basically, by spreading the impact over as large a surface area as possible—and used that to model molecular movement. The original plan was to come up with a performance to communicate Odde's existing microtubule research to the public, but they got distracted by using the dancers to investigate hypotheses.

In one set of dance experiments, the idea was to understand how a certain protein that helps a nematode embryo differentiate, called MEX-5, distributes itself in a single cell. In a paper that Odde co-authored last year, the researchers considered different ways that the MEX-5 gradient might be created. With Flink, Odde choreographed those in terms of rules that the dancers would follow. For example, in one experiment, they were told to always run in one region of a cage—the walls represent the boundaries of the cell—while in another zone, they were never to speed up. "What working with them did for me was, in one particular model, I could immediately appreciate—and so could the dancers—why that model wasn't going to work," Odde says. He suggests in a paper published online this month in Trends in Cell Biology that scientists could use dance for a sort of rapid prototyping of hypotheses—bodystorming rather than brainstorming. Instead of taking months to write and debug a computer simulation of molecular movement, they can instruct the dancers on how to move and see in minutes whether there's a point to investigating that hypothesis further. "I was kind of joking with people that if they didn't like the way I choreographed the dance, they could get their own dance company and we could have a big dance-off," Odde says.

Odde and Flink invited a few other scientists to try out the dancers. One was Dyche Mullins, a cell biologist at the University of California, San Francisco. Like Odde, he also got in the middle of the action, acting as one of the macromolecules. "This sounds kind of ridiculous, but it does give you a psychological sense of what it would be like to be a molecule," he says. "While I was doing this, I was thinking what the molecules in the test tubes I've been working with all these years would feel … bouncing around in a cold, unfeeling solution, looking for a binding partner." He's not going out to get his own dance troupe, but he calls the work worthwhile. "I think even if ideas or physical vocabulary that derives from science works its way into dance or art, I think that's incredibly interesting," he says. "It doesn't have to be that the art has to improve the science. The science can improve the art."

And that has happened—Flink has now taken some of the movements from this project and created a four-person dance piece called "HIT," in which two women and two men slam into each other over and over.