La réalité virtuelle permet aussi de visualiser autrement les molécules, une nouvelle approche utile pour la nano-ingénierie.

Virtual reality, a new tool in biochemistry to study molecules

The interest of virtual reality is not only playful : technology has the potential to change the way creators (or designers) work. This is all the more true for material objects that are difficult to understand by their dimensions, for example in fine chemistry or pharmacochemistry. A new path for both research and education, in which several companies and teams of researchers are engaged.

The latest example, published in the scientific journal Science Advances by a British team from the University of Bristol : a collaborative working environment, hosted in the cloud, where several users can manipulate complex molecules at the same time. The latter have also made available the software, which can be freely downloaded for HTC Vive, Android, Windows and macOS (in the last two cases, they are accessible using the classic keyboard/mouse interfaces).

A researcher performs a demonstration, and shows how to pull a methane molecule through a carbon nanotube/Credits : Helen Deeks and Matt Sutton / Interactive Scientific Ltd.

Solving molecular dynamics problems

The advantage of virtual reality? To represent and handle more easily any type of chemical structures. “Thanks to our study, we can now study in virtual reality many molecular arrangement problems that are inherently dynamic, such as chemical binding sites of a drug, protein folding, or even chemical reactions,” Professor Adrian Muholland said in a statement. A hope for nano-engineering, where it is a question of designing materials dedicated to a specific use, to an atom.

NODE. The device facilitates the resolution of certain three-dimensional problems by humans : the study shows, for example, that in virtual reality, participants were 10 times more likely to succeed in forming structures comprising nodes. The latter are of particular interest to science : “Hundreds of proteins have a structure composed of nodes, and knowing how they formed has become a puzzle that we are trying to solve. And it’s much easier to reproduce them in virtual reality, ” says PhD student Michael O’Connor, also a co-author of the study. This technique also opens up new perspectives for education : rather than reproducing with matches the double helix of DNA to represent itself, perhaps tomorrow we can directly manipulate it in virtual reality at school.

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