Scientists Create Music to Represent Protein Structure of the Coronavirus

    29 April 2020

    Scientists say they have used artificial intelligence (AI) to create music to represent the protein structure of the new coronavirus.

    Researchers used machine-learning methods to make the music, which they say may help them better understand the virus.

    The research team assigned musical notes to amino acids that make up the so-called "spiked" protein that infects human cells. Machine learning was then used to turn the protein and structural information into a nearly two-hour piece of classical music.

    The ultrastructural morphology exhibited by the 2019 Novel Coronavirus
    The ultrastructural morphology exhibited by the 2019 Novel Coronavirus

    Markus Buehler of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) led the research team. He recently reported the results in a study appearing in the publication APL Bioengineering.

    Buehler told the Reuters news agency that turning the protein data into music lets people gain a better understanding of something they cannot see. "You would need many different images, many different magnifications to see with your eyes, what your ears can pick up with just a couple of seconds of music," he said.

    Buehler added that although the proteins themselves "speak a language we don't understand," music can be a way to improve that understanding. "If we are going to be able to solve that language, we could solve many problems – not only for this disease, but for many other diseases."

    The finished selection was uploaded to the music sharing website SoundCloud for the public to hear.

    Listeners of the early part of the piece described it with words such as "beautiful," "interesting," "calm," and "nature."

    Buehler said this part of the music represents the ease at which the spiked protein enters the human cell, making the coronavirus highly contagious. He noted that the virus is very good at "tricking the cell to open the doors" to infect someone.

    As the virus then reproduces and the spiked protein attaches to more cells, the music becomes louder, faster and more intense. One SoundCloud user noted that this part could represent one of the first signs of the virus in humans, a high body temperature. Others described the more intense part of the music as "scary" and "sad."

    The researchers say a possible next step could be to use the musical method to design an antibody to attack the virus.

    Buehler said the fast spread of the new coronavirus had made it important to "open our brains to other ways of processing information." He noted that the usual antibody design methods require a large number of proteins and a long testing process. In the current crisis, "we don't have the luxury of time," Buehler said.

    The study states that musical representations of proteins could also be used as a tool to help design new protein materials for many uses in biology, medicine and engineering.

    I'm Bryan Lynn.

    Bryan Lynn wrote this story for VOA Learning English, based on reports from Reuters, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and APL Bioengineering. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

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    Words in This Story

    artificial intelligence n. the power of a machine to copy intelligent human behavior

    classical adj. representing a high standard or traditional, long-established style

    magnificationn. the process of making something look bigger than it is

    calm adj. relaxed and not worried

    contagious adj. having a sickness that can be passed on to someone else

    rhythm n. a regular, repeating pattern of sound

    antibodyn. a substance produced in the blood to fight disease

    luxuryn. something costly that you enjoy but do not need

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