Magazine covers are balancing acts.
The image needs to instantly engage the audience while also sparking their curiosity. Above all, it must be accurate.
For this week’s cover I created a story of the SARS-CoV-2 main viral protease, one with impact and movement.
Upon infection, SARS-CoV-2 (blue) uses host machinery to produce polyproteins for replication. The viral main protease (yellow) plays a key role in polyprotein cleavage and thus is a potential drug target. Researchers have designed two antiviral compounds that inhibit activity of the main protease to prevent viral replication (bright orange).
I sketched some initial ideas. The one I liked the most showed the viral particle fusing with the membrane. I like the tilted view. After a quick color study (below, left), I learned that the most current research available was leaning toward endocytosis, the process of internalizing substances into a cell within vesicles, as the way SARS-CoV-2 attacks its host. I altered the composition to correct the science while keeping the look of my first sketch (below, right).
Next I used a variety of three-dimensional modeling techniques to create proteins, cell walls, fusing viral membranes, and an endosome, arranging each to match the composition I’d sketched.
With these pieces in place, I started on the centerpiece—SARS-CoV-2. To get the look I wanted, I began with a model of the entire virus.
Then, I moved to a second, more complex model, cutting it open to explore the cells and viral particle membranes.
Finally, I started on the final composition, pulling all the elements together into a story and creating a polished draft.
Science’s creative director, Beth Rakouskas, worked with me in adjusting the image for the final cover design. A tighter perspective added more drama and movement. We enhanced attention on the yellow protease and associated inhibitory drug molecule.
The final image is a microscopic drama—revealing actions of a tiny virus that affects us all.
Chris Bickel is a Senior Scientific Illustrator at Science.