MIT has translated Covid-19 into music

As reported on Australia’s ABC, one of the distinguishing features of SARS-CoV-2 is the crown, or corona, of spikes on its surface. Zoom in to those infinitesimal spikes further and they’re made up of chains of proteins, looping and folding over one another.

In an attempt to understand this new pathogen better, musician and engineer Markus Buehler and his colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have assigned each protein and structural form a musical equivalent.

The result, generated by artificial intelligence, is a surprisingly soothing musical score that Professor Buehler said revealed detail that microscopes couldn’t.

“Our brains are great at processing sound. In one sweep, our ears pick up all of its hierarchical features: pitch, timbre, volume, melody, rhythm, and chords,” he said. “We would need a high-powered microscope to see the equivalent detail in an image, and we could never see it all at once. “Sound is such an elegant way to access the information stored in a protein.”

The SARS-CoV-2 virus spike is a particularly complex assembly — it involves three protein chains folded together in an intricate pattern. The volume, duration and rhythm of notes in the score reflect how the amino acids that make up the proteins are arranged, and the entangled chains are rendered as intersecting melodies.

“These structures are too small for the eye to see, but they can be heard,” Professor Buehler said.

While we cannot see small nanoscopic objects like proteins or other molecules that make up virtually all living matter including our cells, tissues, as well as pathogens such as viruses, our computational algorithm allows us to make its material manifestation audible. This piece is a musical representation of the amino acid sequence and structure of the spike protein of the pathogen of COVID-19, 2019-nCoV (protein data bank identifier 6VSB [1]).

MUSICAL DECEIT

A virus’ genome hijacks the host cell’s protein manufacturing machinery, and forces it to replicate the viral genome and produce viral proteins to make new viruses from it. This musical art teaches us something about the fine line between beauty of life and death as an opposite pole. As you listen to the protein you will find that the intricate design results in incredibly interesting and actually pleasing, relaxing sounds. This doesn’t really convey the deadly impacts this particularly protein is having on the world. This aspect of the music shows the deceiving nature of the virus, how it hijacks our body to replicate, and hurt us along the way. So, the music is a metaphor for this nature of the virus to deceive the host and exploit it for its own multiplication.

HOW IT IS DONE:

What you hear is a multi-layered algorithmic composition featuring both the vibrational spectrum of the entire protein (expressed in sound and rhythmic elements), the sequence and folding of amino acids that compose the virus spike structure, as well as interwoven melodies – forming counterpoint music – reflecting the complex hierarchical intersecting geometry of the protein [2].

Scientific references:

[1] Wrapp et al., “Cryo-EM structure of the 2019-nCoV spike in the prefusion conformation,” Science, 2020, DOI: 10.1126/science.abb2507

[2] Buehler et al., “A Self-Consistent Sonification Method to Translate Amino Acid Sequences into Musical Compositions and Application in Protein Design Using Artificial Intelligence,” ACS Nano, 2019, DOI: pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acsnano.9b02180

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Damion Pell
About the Author

Loves long walks along the beach, holding hands and romantic 80's power ballads, partial to electronic music and likes to make the odd mix or two.