The software that powers scientific illustration

The web-based tool BioRender has become a staple of biomedical research drawings.
Cartoon showing person interacting with digital lines to form an atomic shape

Illustration by The Project Twins

Like many researchers, Rita Sattler is trained to conduct science, not to draw it. But papers still need writing — and illustrating. So, when the time came to document what her team had done for a journal article, Sattler did what her colleagues frequently do: she fired up PowerPoint.

Microsoft’s tool for creating and displaying slideshow presentations is one of two popular options for creating scientific illustrations; the other is Adobe Illustrator. But Illustrator is a professional-grade tool with a notoriously steep learning curve, and PowerPoint’s strength is slide shows, not graphic design. “I’m not gonna give the adjective that I really want to say, but they were just really not nice,” Sattler says of the resulting images.

In 2019, a graduate student in Sattler’s laboratory suggested an alternative. BioRender, a web-based tool specifically designed for life-science and medical illustration, is like a feature-lite version of Illustrator. Developed in Toronto, Canada, by a start-up of the same name, and launched in 2017, it features an extensive library of scalable ‘icons’ from across the life sciences and medicine; researchers can drop these onto a canvas and manipulate them as if they were circles or polygons.

For Sattler, a neuroscientist at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, that made it possible to quickly illustrate cell-differentiation pathways without having to draw each cell from scratch. “Everybody was like, oh my God, this is awesome,” Sattler says. “We jumped on this very, very quickly, and we’ve been using really nothing else since then.”

Show, not tell

Scientific success requires effective communication, whether with peer reviewers, funding agencies or colleagues. In a field in which the communication channels that count — journal articles and grant applications — often have page limits, an illustration can be worth far more than a thousand words. “If you want to communicate your findings, or in the case of a grant application if you just want to explain what you want to do, it’s really important to use graphics,” says Wilfried Rossoll, a cell biologist at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida.

Unlike data figures that detail primary research findings, these graphics typically serve as illustrated explainers of proposed models, experimental methods or biochemical pathways. An increasing number of journals allow researchers to include graphical abstracts, for instance — illustrations intended to summarize the key conclusions of a paper.

Researchers typically create those illustrations using PowerPoint or Illustrator, or analogues thereof. But none of these was designed specifically for scientists, so they can be challenging to use. “I would have banged my head against the wall” trying to use Illustrator had it not been for BioRender, says Signe Elisabeth Åsberg, a sepsis researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, as she recalls the graphics she made for her thesis. Akiko Iwasaki, an immunobiologist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, echoes that sentiment. Using Illustrator, she says, “it would take me days to create figures of tissues or cell types or vasculature. But with BioRender, within minutes I can draw what I need.”

Fully equipped

That’s thanks mostly to BioRender’s library of around 30,000 life-science icons, which includes anatomical drawings and depictions of everything from SARS-CoV-2 virus particles to fruit flies. Users can resize, rotate and change the colour of those icons. But they cannot change their fundamental appearance, for instance to add or remove a protein domain. The library also includes icons for specific pieces of laboratory kit, making it possible to illustrate protocols with images of the actual equipment used. Among the items depicted are the Orbitrap Fusion Tribrid mass spectrometer, made by Thermo Fisher Scientific in Waltham, Massachusetts, and the MinION DNA sequencer, from Oxford Nanopore Technologies in the United Kingdom. Beth Kenkel, an associate scientist at Bristol Myers Squibb in Seattle, says that this feature helps in her presentations to her team. “I can quickly make a graphic representation of how I plan to do an experiment. And then I can solicit feedback from my co-workers: is this how I should design it, or should I change something?”

Researchers can also create icons representing specific structures in the Protein Data Bank, an open-access digital archive providing access to 3D structure data for proteins and nucleic acids. In March the company rolled out an enhanced Protein Data Bank interface that enables BioRender to produce “more painterly” renderings than its earlier iteration, says Shiz Aoki, a medical illustrator who co-founded BioRender. Users can also request custom icons from the BioRender team. Rossoll, for example, has ordered icons that represent two pieces of equipment used in tissue processing for immunohistochemical analysis. Created at no charge, those icons are now available to all BioRender users. “You’re welcome,” he quips.

All lined up

Fleshing out BioRender’s toolbar are drawing tools specific to life-science research. There are pre-made lines and arrow styles for biochemical pathways, for instance; an arc tool for plasmid maps (graphical representations of small circular pieces of DNA commonly used in molecular biology research); and a new series of brushes for drawing plasmid membranes, vasculature and nucleic acids as if they were lines.

Andrew Deans, a protein chemist at St Vincent’s Institute in Melbourne, Australia, published a paper (J. O’Rourke et al. Nucleus 10, 221–230; 2019) in October that features four graphics created in BioRender. Deans is comfortable using Illustrator, but notes that it can be difficult to train new people to use it. As a result, he says, his students ‘love’ BioRender. But they still create data figures with Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop, he notes. And one member of his team, who is comfortable drawing freehand, creates illustrations using the Tayasui Sketches iPad app and an Apple Pencil.

And there are other options, although none is as bio-focused as BioRender. Kenkel, who also blogs for the reagent distribution service Addgene, says that she illustrates her posts mostly using Vectr, a general-purpose vector-graphics tool, and Canva, an online tool for creating social-media images. Both tools are free, web-based and easy to use, she says, and “basically tick all the boxes for me”.

Ken Hughes, an oceanography postdoc at Oregon State University in Corvallis, uses Inkscape, an open-source Illustrator analogue whose version 1.0 release came out on 1 May. And Zen Faulkes, who studies crustacean biology at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg, favours CorelDRAW, a commercial tool that he supplements with images from the Noun Project, a collection of more than 2 million freely available icons. (Another option is the Servier Medical Art collection from the pharmaceutical company Servier in Suresnes, France; this includes some 3,000 free-to-use images.)

According to Aoki, BioRender now has some 200,000 users. It’s free to use, but the resulting images are watermarked, and output-file resolution and format are limited. Figure publication requires a licence (US$35 per month, or $99 per month for 5 users). Users can start working from a blank canvas, but the company also provides hundreds of predesigned templates, including several related to SARS-CoV-2. One of these, detailing the coronavirus replication cycle, is currently the most-used template on the site, Aoki says.

Nature 582, 137-138 (2020)

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