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Listen to Sick Tunes Created by Turning Proteins Into Music

MIT researchers converted the building blocks of life into beats and put it on Soundcloud.

by Becky Ferreira
Jun 26 2019, 5:26pm

MIT scientists create music from protein chains. Image: MIT/ACS

Amino acids (the organic compounds that make up proteins) have major bragging rights as the building blocks of all life on Earth. But a new study shows that amino acids are also talented musical composers, provided that humans first convert their tunes into audible frequencies.

The amino acid chains that make up proteins can be easily visualized as a sequence of musical notes, according to Markus Buehler, a materials scientist at MIT. Buehler and his colleagues used the similarities between these sequences to convert 20 types of amino acids into a 20-tone scale. The results, published in a study published Wednesday in ACS Nano, include trippy original songs and fresh insights into protein structure.

Honestly, it sounds pretty good, and I would go to this protein chain’s DJ night. VICE music reporter Colin Joyce, when asked what he thought, described the composition entitled “Orchestra of Amino Acids” as “a budget version of the cyborg funk of early Autechre,” which means the proteins are clearly big fans of 90s experimental electronic music.

The genre of “protein music,” in which the frequencies of amino acids are correlated to musical tones, has been around for several years. But Buehler’s team developed a new twist on this tradition using an artificial neural network, a type of machine learning program that “learns” based on input data.

The compositions created by the 20 amino acids were studied by the AI, which then riffed on them by introducing slight permutations into the sheet music. Those altered compositions were converted back into a conceptual amino acid chain, which enabled the team to generate variations of proteins that have never been seen in nature.

Though previous studies have used amino acids to make music, this is the first study that has also demonstrated that such compositions can be learned by an artificial neural network (AI) and translated back into protein sequences, Buehler said in an email.

If you’re looking to get into an emerging genre of music, take a moment to indulge in some amino acid jazz.