The Terrible Beauty of COVID-19 (in GIFs)

How the coronavirus looks, and what it does inside your body

COVID-19 travelling on a droplet (like in a cough). By David Goodsell

Whether you look up or down — we are entirely insignificant. Look up and we’re lost among trillions of stars. Look down and we disappear into trillions of cells, most of them not even human. Humanity is just a thin slice between cosmos and microcosmos, important only to ourselves.

We think ourselves masters of the universe, but we’re not even masters of our selves. There is no self, just trillions of cells. We think of COVID-19 affecting us so terribly, but COVID doesn’t even perceive us. It lives only in a world of cells, connected by corridors of coughing. To truly understand this coronavirus we must meet it where it lives.

In the microcosmos.

David Goodsell is the artist and dare I say shaman of this realm. He is a computational biologist, a scientist, but what he produces can only be called art. His drawings let you see a microcosmos which is as awesome as the cosmos above, and yet they are accurate enough for working scientists to use.

What follows are his drawings of COVID-19, annotated by an idiot (me) into GIFs. Like the distant violence of a star, the molecular violence of COVID-19 can only be perceived by human beings in one way. With awe.

This is the terrible beauty of COVID-19.


Illustration by David S. Goodsell, RCSB Protein Data Bank. ‘This painting shows a cross section through a small respiratory droplet, like the ones that are thought to transmit SARS-CoV-2.‘

Why do we wear masks? It’s to close the door on COVID-19. To COVID, there are no individual people, just individual cells, and masking prevents our filthy faces from forming a highway of invisible droplets. Which Goodsell has made visible above.

Droplets contain what your lungs contain — mucin (ie, mucus), antibodies, and a stowaway: COVID-19. This is thought to be a primary way that COVID-19 gets around. The corridor of coughs. The superhighway of sneezes. Surfing on a droplet.

First Contact

Illustration by David S. Goodsell, RCSB Protein Data Bank. ‘This painting depicts a coronavirus just entering the lungs, surrounded by mucus secreted by respiratory cells, secreted antibodies, and several small immune systems proteins. ‘

The killer thing about this novel coronavirus is that it’s novel. When it’s swimming around the warm mucus of our lungs, our immune system is like “new proteins, who dis”? Our antibodies have never seen this body before, so they don’t attach to COVID’s spiky crown (the S protein, in pink). They just let it go. That’s the problem.

Left alone, COVID-19 starts working on the one thing viruses can’t do alone — replication. The RNA code inside starts executing and starts taking over your cells, with one purpose only. To make more COVID-19. In a phrase, it goes viral. Like a racist grandpa given time alone on WhatsApp, COVID-19 begins forwarding itself all over your body.

Breaking Bad

David S. Goodsell, RCSB Protein Data Bank. ‘This illustration shows a cross section through a cell infected with a coronavirus such as SARS-CoV-2. It shows a time point when the virus is actively replicating, and new viruses are being created. The cell’s molecules are shown in blues and greens, and the viral molecules are shown in pinks and purples. ‘

In the image above, COVID-19 has completely hijacked a cell to produce more COVID-19. The green/blue celly parts are almost invisible and even those are completely re-engineered by COVID to make more COVID. These cells are not doing anything for humanity. It’s like finding a meth lab in your living room.

COVID-19 takes over your literal ‘living’ room to make more COVID-19.

There’s a lot going on here and Goodsell goes into a tremendous amount of detail in his drawings, which I’m eliding here.

Let’s zoom in.

Detail of ribosomes in the endoplasmic reticulum

To grievously simplify, DNA or RNA is code and that code makes proteins. Proteins make stuff. Usually you. In this case, however, the same machinery is being hijacked to make coronavirus.

As you can see, COVID-19 feeds its RNA into our ribosomes. These ribosomes no longer make stuff we need, instead they churn out spike proteins for COVID-19. We build, for coronavirus, its crown.

Once it gets into your cells, COVID-19 is king.

Let’s zoom out again and see what’s going on.

OK, so we know that COVID-19 is building a ‘room’ in our meth house with a double membrane vesicle. What exactly is going on is a mystery, but obviously some form of cooking meth. Probably replicating RNA, which by now your body is swimming in.

Then more virus (virions) starts ‘budding’ out of the cell. Finally, those virions go infect up some more cells as mature virions. And so the life-cycle of COVID-19 continues. This, unfortunately, is the death cycle for many of us.

Kill Bill… ions of viruses

David S. Goodsell, RCSB Protein Data Bank and Springer Nature. This painting shows a cross section through SARS-CoV-2 surrounded by blood plasma, with neutralizing antibodies in bright yellow.

And yet, for most people the immune system eventually gets a handle on even this novel coronavirus. How? The answer is that the immune system eventually learns. The virus is not novel anymore.

The yellow Y-shaped antibodies above are not confused by the crown, they recognize it, attach, and send signals to marshall the rest of the immune system. This is a delicate balance and can easily kill you. A cytokine storm (great band name) triggers such an overwhelming immune response that it kills healthy and viral cells alike.

I must reiterate that the long-term damage of COVID-19 is not known. It’s not like your immune system figures it out and everyone gets better. Even if you don’t die, your life can be impacted for months, years, or forever. We’re only a few months in. We don’t now.

Many people have been living with major symptoms for months and many have long-term organ damage. This is a hell of a virus and the best immune response actually comes from our second immune system — our shared public health systems. These prevent COVID-19 from getting into your cells at all.

So while this image series ends, there is no happy ending. It’s better to never tell this story at all.

The Terrible Beauty

As we leave the microcosmos, please remember that above every drawings is human tragedy. Someone is coughing, violently. Someone is so tired they cannot stand in the shower. Someone else is reaching out to help, and getting virus in the face. Someone is lying in a hospital bed, terribly alone, gasping for oxygen that their lungs cannot — on a molecular level — receive.

We live between the microcosmos and the cosmos, in a world that is terribly insignificant and terribly real. We often ask why God does not end our suffering, but it’s quite likely that she can’t even perceive it. How much do you perceive the rupture of an cell? Or the explosion of a star? Are beings even capable of empathy across dimensions so vast?

The only significance of humans is that we can know our own insignificance. We can feel things bigger and smaller than us, and that experience is often one of beauty. What philosophers would call the sublime. Greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, and beyond all judgement. It just is.

In this way COVID-19 is both terrible and beautiful. It is terrible in its effects, but seen up close — through the art and science of David Goodsell — it is beautiful. It’s like watching God run a sudo command, ripping RNA code through bats, human beings, and Siberian tigers alike.

Scientists are using Goodsell’s work to fight this thing — to find out which proteins to target and what exactly is going on — but we laypeople can use the same information for something else.

To just look down in awe.

David Goodsell is a Trap God and I highly recommend reading the book Machinery Of Life for a basic grounding and/or going through his collection of work, which is vast. These are the pieces I’ve modified.

I have modified his work under a CC-BY-4.0 license and have linked directly to high quality TIFF files and explanations, which I have bastardized through Adobe Illustrator and my own meme-addled text.

All praise to the most high, Vir-i and Bacteri-i. They outnumber us trillions to one, they made the Earth from the Sun, they will be here when we’re done.