Coronavirus: Decoding the Spiky Fuzz-Ball

Seen as the visual representation of the pandemic, one expert says the image should also be used as an educational tool.

12:20 PM

Author | Alana Valko

cell of COVID-19
CDC’s digital representation of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Getty Images

You've seen it—a large spherical mass with protruding red spikes plastered across the television and the internet. It's an image that has become all too familiar over the last few months.

We know it well as COVID-19, but what exactly does this picture tell us other than serving as the visual representation of the pandemic? Deb Gumucio, Ph.D., co-founder and director of U-M's BioArtography Project, which transforms stained research specimens into beautiful art pieces, has thought a lot about the impact scientific imagery has when understanding biological diseases, viruses and the human body in the time of the coronavirus. 

"Right now, the image that everyone sees is essentially being treated like a brand," said Gumucio, also a professor emerita of cell and developmental biology at the U-M Medical School. "A lot of people look at this image and they don't have a lot of information about it—it looks a little like some sort of menacing alien machine."

The popular coronavirus image, created by medical artists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is actually a digital reproduction. While the images that Gumucio creates as part of her BioArtography process are from actual photo-micrographs, she says that the image we've seen circulating is a helpful visual tool.

SEE ALSO: Finding Beauty Through a Microscope

"It gives you a fairly accurate picture of the way the virus is put together," she says. "Those spikes on the outside are really there and they're what gave the virus its name—'corona' comes from the word crown in Latin, and those spikes bind to the receptor on a cell and allow the virus to enter it." 

Like each image that BioArtography produces, the coronavirus' spiky ball tells a story, and that story has become an important visual cue about public health and safety. 

"In the image, they added some orange and yellow-colored dots on the surface, which represent the myriad of proteins that the virus encodes," Gumucio said. "That's why washing your hands with soap is so important—it denatures those proteins on the surface. If the virus does not have those proteins, it cannot infect a cell." 

She notes that the digital microscopic rendering of the virus is a good thing, and could actually serve as a constant public health reminder.

"Though the image doesn't often come with an explanation, people should know that it is a visual representation of how they have the power to destroy those proteins if they wash their hands thoroughly," she said.

According to Gumucio, the problem with the coronavirus image is that it is being treated as a brand for the virus, and not as the educational tool that it should be.

"I'd like to see more captions and more people talking about what the image can actually tell us," she said. "BioArtography promotes the idea that every single image that we generate is unique and tells a unique story about the image researched."

Gumucio wants us to think about the image in a different way the next time we see it.

"There is a lot of fear about the virus and the image that represents it," she said. "If people had more information to help them understand it, I think they'd feel a bit more confident that there are ways to defeat it."

Adapted from a story by Alana Valko

More Articles About: Lab Report Covid-19 Basic Science and Laboratory Research infectious disease
Health Lab word mark overlaying blue cells
Health Lab

Explore a variety of healthcare news & stories by visiting the Health Lab home page for more articles.

Media Contact Public Relations

Department of Communication at Michigan Medicine

[email protected]


Stay Informed

Want top health & research news weekly? Sign up for Health Lab’s newsletters today!

Featured News & Stories
Health Lab
COVID-19 Antibody Tests, Even Rapid Finger Pricks, are Effective, New Study Finds
A new study finds antibody tests, including rapid finger prick tests, effective in determining previous COVID-19 infection.
image of x-ray of lungs, two hands holding it
Health Lab
Oxygen Therapy Harms Lung Microbiome in Mice
New research in mice suggests that understanding the role of the lung microbiome may be pivotal to reducing infection brought on by oxygen treatment for hypoxemia.
cells colorful
Health Lab
Improvements in human genome databases offer a promising future for cancer research
A gene sequencing method called ribosome profiling has expanded our understanding of the human genome by identifying previously unknown protein coding regions. Also known as Ribo-seq, this method allows researchers to get a high-resolution snapshot of protein production in cells.
flies moving sled in snow with person
Health Lab
Gene links exercise endurance, cold tolerance and cellular maintenance in flies
A study in PNAS identifies a protein that, when missing, makes exercising in the cold that much harder—that is, at least in fruit flies.
bacteria black background yellow cell
Health Lab
The surprising origin of a deadly hospital infection
Surprising findings from a Michigan Medicine study in Nature Medicine suggest that the burden of C. diff infection may be less a matter of hospital transmission and more a result of characteristics associated with the patients themselves.
Health Lab
Genetic mutation linked to adrenal tumor and hypertension
Research from the Department of Molecular & Integrative Physiology at Michigan Medicine identifies a previously unknown genetic mutation that causes the disease called primary aldosteronism in certain populations.