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May 6

In 1971, Stanford Students Did an Interpretive Dance to Demonstrate Protein Synthesis

“tRNA!”

In 1971, a group of 200 Stanford University students performed a rather strange interpretive dance. Wearing bright leotards and body paint, with balloons tied to their heads, they pranced and rolled around in a field. It wasn’t a seance or cult ritual. It wasn’t a social gathering. These students were creating a scientific educational film about the cellular process of protein synthesis.  

This approximately 13-minute film Protein Synthesis: An Epic on the Cellular Level, captures the students’ choreographed dance, visually representing the moving dynamic steps of protein formation from a strand of RNA. A couple of Stanford medical students came up with the grand idea, recruited the help of modern dance students, and shot the entire film in a day. Majority of the dancers in the “Protein Jive Sutra” were untrained volunteers. 

The film is introduced by Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Berg, who briefly explains the basics of protein synthesis on a chalkboard, but says, “My diagram is of necessity static, but protein synthesis is a dynamic process. This movie tried to bring those dynamic interactions to life.”

It’s hard to forget the psychedelic jazz music, the poetic narration, the tumbling gray dancers of the ribosomal subunits, and (a personal favorite) the black-caped T factor sulking around gathering tRNA.

Reportedly, wine was involved in all of this. American modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham supposedly once said it’s, “the best movie I’ve ever seen about protein synthesis.”

Every day we track down a Video Wonder: an audiovisual offering that delights, inspires, and entertains. Have you encountered a video we should feature? Email [email protected].