JUN 26, 2019 12:59 PM PDT

The Music of Proteins

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

Can proteins make beautiful music? Researchers have now combined two very different processes - the composition of music and of proteins. Just as various notes are used to write music, a cell makes proteins from amino acids, and now scientists have converted those amino acids into sounds to create musical passages from protein sequences. Artificial intelligence can make a few changes to the music of a known protein and then reverse the process, generating completely new proteins. The work is explained in the video below and has been reported in ACS Nano. The researchers have even made an app that anyone can use to make music from biomolecules.

While it seems like just a fun endeavor, researcher Markus Buehler and colleagues are aiming to improve our understanding of proteins, which are the building blocks of organisms, and perform many of the essential functions of life. Protein structures, which are inextricably linked to protein function, are often hard to decipher and very intricate.

"They have their own language, and we don't know how it works," said Buehler, the McAfee Professor of Engineering and head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT. "We don't know what makes a silk protein a silk protein or what patterns reflect the functions found in an enzyme. We don't know the code."

Cells in the body use organelles called ribosomes to generate proteins from RNA - which carries the information about the protein’s amino acid sequence from DNA.

In this work, the scientists used the natural vibrational frequencies of amino acids to produce audible sounds and then made a musical scale of twenty tones. These sounds are layered with frequencies, making them more similar to chords. The tone durations are determined by the 3D structures in the molecule. Artificial intelligence is able to recognize patterns that correspond to various architectural motifs of proteins, like an alpha helix.

New proteins, not seen in nature, can now be composed with these new computational tools. Even though we don’t know all the rules for designing a good protein, "the AI has learned the language of how proteins are designed," and can vary existing proteins, or generate entirely new designs, said Buehler.

Proteins apparently sound a little like minimalist EDM, to me. You can listen to Orchestra of Amino Acids and others on Soundcloud. After listening for awhile, Beuhler can now ‘hear’ certain features of proteins in their musical compositions.  "That's a beta sheet," he might think, or "that's an alpha helix." This process could also be an easy way to help laypeople understand protein structure.


Sources: AAAS/Eurekalert! via Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), ACS Nano

About the Author
  • Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on over 30 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 70 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
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