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SARS-CoV-2 (blue), viral main protease (yellow)
Illustration: C. Bickel/Science; Data: PDB ID 6M0K (SARS-CoV-2 main protease)

Capturing corona

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).

C. Bickel/Science

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.

C. Bickel/Science

Then, I moved to a second, more complex model, cutting it open to explore the cells and viral particle membranes.

C. Bickel/Science

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.

The June 19 Science coverIllustration: C. Bickel/Science; Data: PDB ID 6M0K (SARS-CoV-2 main protease)
C. Bickel/Science

This key illustrates the individual proteins depicted within the final cover illustration.

Chris Bickel is a Senior Scientific Illustrator at Science.