Music may provide an unexpected help in the “deciphering” of proteins. Proteins are molecules that make up the machinery of all living things (our body is made up almost exclusively of water and proteins), but in many cases they are difficult to describe, especially with regard to their shape (and yet illnesses may be caused by the three-dimensional structure of these molecules, or from errors in the “positioning” of several of their elements). This unusual marriage of music and protein has been suggested in a study published in the scientific journal ACS Nano by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston (USA), who have developed an algorithm to convert 20 fundamental components of proteins – amino acids – into sound, exploiting the physical characteristics of these molecules and, in particular, their quantum chemistry. What does this mean?
“A molecule is never static, but is constantly moving”, explains Professor Markus Buehler, coordinator of the research, “Every bit of matter is a set of vibrations. And we can use this concept (i.e. quantum state, editor’s note) as a way of describing matter, through a musical translation that turns these frequencies into sounds audible to the human ear”.
The sounds they obtained appear rather bizarre, but they have their own harmony, to the point that, for example, it is possible to distinguish if the structure of a protein is more like a helix or a sheet (two of the most frequent structures of proteins in musical space). To take a further step, after having obtained a series of melodies from as many proteins, the researchers from MIT entered all the collected information into a supercomputer, and instructed the “machine” to also generate hypothetical melody variations (proteins), working with artificial intelligence systems on the possible combinations, which amount to trillions of trillions (impossible to study, therefore, for any human brain). All of this may help us to better understand how the proteins actually used by the human body work, or don’t work.
In fact, a lot of data is still missing, at international level, on other essential characteristics of proteins and their variants, such as, for example, those concerning elasticity, which also changes considerably following the individual replacement of amino acids. Hence, the platform set up by MIT must now be adjusted and optimized to ensure that true sonatas can be made out of the rather abnormal tones of the individual melodies (like the current description of numerous proteins) or in the future even entire symphonies, i.e. totally faithful protein reconstructions.
In the meantime the system can also be used as a creative basis for composing sounds deriving directly from biology: with this in mind the researchers have created a specific app called Amino Acid Synthesizer, which enables users to make their own music using these 20 unusual “notes”.
Journalist since 1983, has been dealing with scientific divulgation for years, especially in the fields of medicine and biology. Creator of Sportello Cancro, the site created by corriere.it on oncology, in collaboration with the Umberto Veronesi Foundation. He collaborated with the pages of the Science of Corriere della Sera for several years. He is currently President of the Lugano Science Foundation.
Giornalista dal 1983, si occupa da anni di divulgazione scientifica, specialmente nei campi della medicina e della biologia. Ideatore di Sportello Cancro, il sito realizzato da corriere.it sull’oncologia, in collaborazione con la Fondazione Umberto Veronesi. Ha collaborato con le pagine della Scienza del Corriere della Sera per diversi anni. Attualmente è Presidente della Fondazione per la Scienza di Lugano.