If a virus could sing … Could this musical version of COVID-19 help us defeat the disease?
By George Moretti

We’re all now familiar with the spiky look of the coronavirus protein. But what do you think it might sound like?

An engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has shown us. By assigning musical notes to each part of the virus’ structure, he has created a whole composition, which, as it turns out, is similar to the ambient music pioneered by Brian Eno.

The proteins that make up all living things are alive with music. Markus Buehler, professor at MIT develops artificial intelligence models to design new proteins, sometimes by translating them into sound. His goal is to create new biological materials for sustainable, non-toxic applications. In a project with the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, Buehler is searching for a protein to extend the shelf life of perishable food.

In another recent study, in APL Bioengineering, he went a step further and used artificial intelligence (AI) to discover an entirely new protein. As both studies went to print, the Covid-19 outbreak was surging in the United States, and Buehler turned his attention to the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2, the appendage that makes the novel coronavirus so contagious. He and his colleagues are trying to unpack its vibrational properties through molecular-based sound spectra, which could hold one key to stopping the virus.

His musical representation of the virus is, he says, more accurate than classical static diagrams that fail to show the virus’ constant movement and vibration.

“They don’t actually look like they look in a chemistry textbook because atoms and molecules are continuously moving. They kind of look like a vibrating string.”

And it is that vibration that fascinates Buehler, who is looking at whether it can be exploited to combat the virus.

“That is something we have been thinking about for this protein and other proteins in the last couple of years, to use the knowledge of the Nanoscopic vibrations as a way of actually disintegrating the structure.

“I do a lot of research on fracturing of materials in my work and a lot of times we’re trying to prevent fracturing from happening. But in this case, we actually are trying to find a pathway to deliberately destroy a structure, vibrations are an important pathway to doing that.”

The Benefit of Translating Proteins Into Sound

The brain is great at processing sound! In one sweep, our ears pick up all of its hierarchical features: pitch, timbre, volume, melody, rhythm, and chords. “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”, says Buehler.

Typically, sound is made from vibrating a material, like a guitar string, and arranging sounds in hierarchical patterns makes music. By combining AI and these concepts, and using molecular vibrations and neural networks we can construct new musical forms. We’ve been working on methods to turn protein structures into audible representations, and translate these representations into new materials.

What can an Audible Representation of SARS-Cov-2’s “Spike” Protein Tell Us?
Professor Buehel explains; “Its protein spike contains three protein chains folded into an intriguing pattern. These structures are too small for the eye to see, but they can be heard. We represented the physical protein structure, with its entangled chains, as interwoven melodies that form a multi-layered composition. The spike protein’s amino acid sequence, its secondary structure patterns, and its intricate three-dimensional folds are all featured. The resulting piece is a form of counterpoint music, in which notes are played against notes. Like a symphony, the musical patterns reflect the protein’s intersecting geometry realized by materializing its DNA code.

A Tricky Little Virus

The virus has an uncanny ability to deceive and exploit the host for its own multiplication. Its 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. As you listen, you may be surprised by the pleasant, even relaxing, tone of the music. But it tricks our ear in the same way the virus tricks our cells. It’s an invader disguised as a friendly visitor. 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.

Addressing Covid-19, and the Virus

Translating proteins into sound gives scientists another tool to understand and design proteins. Even a small mutation can limit or enhance the pathogenic power of SARS-CoV-2. Through audible representation, we can also compare the biochemical processes of its spike protein with previous coronaviruses, like SARS or MERS.

In the music we created, we analyzed the vibrational structure of the spike protein that infects the host. Understanding these vibrational patterns is critical for drug design and much more. 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.

We might also use a compositional approach to design drugs to attack the virus. We could search for a new protein that matches the melody and rhythm of an antibody capable of binding to the spike protein, interfering with its ability to infect.

Let’s hope that this virus can finally face the music.

Thanks to http://news.mit.edu/ for the contribution to this article