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Scientists translate coronavirus spike protein into music, revealing more about its structure – ABC News


By this stage, you will have seen plenty of artists’ impressions of the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. Now, you can hear one.

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.

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.

It’s pretty, but what’s the point?

There’s more to this piece of music than a pretty melody with a nerdy origin.

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Translating proteins into sound gives scientists another tool to understand and manipulate them, Professor Buehler said.

“Even a small mutation can limit or enhance the pathogenic power of SARS-CoV-2.”

It’s the spike protein on the outside of the virus that fits to the receptors inside our bodies and allows the virus to infect us.

In creating the music, Professor Buehler and his team analysed the “vibrational structure” of this protein.

“Understanding these vibrational patterns is critical for drug design and much more,” he said.

“Vibrations may change as temperatures warm, for example, and they may also tell us why the SARS-CoV-2 spike gravitates toward human cells more than other viruses.”

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Taking a musical approach could also be used to design drugs to attack the virus, he said.

For example, scientists could search for a new protein that matches the melody and rhythm of antibodies that could interfere with the virus’s ability to infect.

A musical analogy

So yes, this music has function. But it’s also a product of creativity and artistic expression.

And, just like any art form, it highlights aspects of the world around us that we might otherwise miss.

“As you listen, you may be surprised by the pleasant, even relaxing, tone of the music,” Professor Buehler said.

“Through music, we can see the SARS-CoV-2 spike from a new angle, and appreciate the urgent need to learn the language of proteins.”

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