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Virtual reality makes kids’ play of photosynthesis

RuBisCO structure

The Centre is using virtual reality to provide the public with an understanding of how plant photosynthesis works.

Dr Alistair McCormick and PhD student Hamish Todd have developed an interactive educational tool that involves a virtual reality (VR) game in which users need to find a key enzyme involved in photosynthesis (Rubisco), pick it up and collect carbon dioxide molecules while avoiding oxygen molecules. The project, funded by the Phyconet network, aims to provide insights for children and the public into biology. 

Users put on the VR headset and hand-held controller and can immerse themselves within a 3D environment.  The program ‘shrinks’ the user to the size of an atom and places them inside a chloroplast. The VR system can track their movement so they can walk around this VR chloroplast picking up enzymes and molecules.

The game was designed in collaboration with Hamish (from the lab of Prof Andrew Goryachev), who previously worked in the gaming industry. The lab first trialled it at the Midlothian Science Festival in Edinburgh last year. In the longer term, the aims are to introduce the kit for use in schools, and to develop more biology educational games for the platform.

Alistair says: “The idea evolved from Hamish’s PhD, which is focused on developing a VR tool for analysing protein crystal structure data.  Our VR game offers a simplified way to visualise how proteins function, and can impart basic knowledge about substrates and competitive interactions to a wide variety of age groups. Overall, VR is a very promising learning tool for interactive teaching of scientific processes.”

Phyconet is a BBSRC Network in Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy (BBSRC NIBB), a UK-based network enabling biologists, engineers and industrial partners to consolidate their knowledge and expertise to unlock the potential of microalgae.

Image: Spacefilling structure of RuBisCO created using Rasmol and the 8RUC file from the Protein Data Bank. Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.