The body’s many proteins begin their lives as long strands of amino acids before folding up into the many tangles and ribbons that make them unique. The process makes for striking imagery. But, until now, it has lacked a soundtrack. 

Wedding the fields of biology and music, researchers in the US and UK have come up with a way to make folding proteins sing. And if it catches on, scientists might one day be able to spot the signs of disease by listening for errant voices in a microscopic choir.

“I look at what researchers are doing, and I think they’re like Magellan — they’re explorers,” said Jonathan Middleton, a composer and music researcher who splits his time between Eastern Washington University and Finland’s University of Tampere. “Right now, they have visual tools for that, and my argument is: Why not also have an auditory option?”

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Through a process called protein sonification, Middleton and Robert Bywater from the Francis Crick Institute have assigned musical flourishes to match a protein’s shape, depth, and amino acid content. Each measurable stat has a corresponding pitch and rhythm. Played from the top, individual proteins become unique melodies.

Working with Bywater, Middleton created mapping system that syncs musical motifs to a protein’s unique measurements.

For a complex protein like the muscle-related connectin, the numbers describing its three-dimensional shape and amino acid content would use nearly the full range of Middleton’s piano. For something simpler, like the albumin found in blood, the numbers would be fairly modal and the song more constrained. Think “Für Elise” versus “Chopsticks.”

The key is whether each melody tracks with models, graphs, and charts of a protein’s measurable characteristics. Middleton and Bywater tried out their method on 38 people, showing them visualizations of proteins and asking how well the accompanying music matched up with what they saw. A significant majority reported a correlation between sight and sound, according to results published in the journal Heliyon on Thursday, convincing the researchers that they’re onto something.

In the short term, the sonification software is “a wonderful teaching tool,” Bywater said, allowing students to better understand the complex world of protein folding by assigning a memorable musical motif to each shape.

But over time, the researchers hope their work could help scientists identify protein mutations that might signal disease and help scientists spotlight new ways to treat it. In the coming months, Middleton and Bywater hope to put up a website that would allow users to pick any protein in the world and get an mp3 in exchange.

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“I can imagine composers having a field day with this,” Bywater said. But scientists, too, will get an audible axis to add to their toolkit for assessing proteins. Alzheimer’s disease, for example, is widely believed to result from protein misfolding, which could correlate with dissonance in molecular melodies, Bywater said.

And that could be of real use in research, said David Pincus, a fellow at the Whitehead Institute not involved in the project.

“I think every researcher who’s been studying one particular protein always wants a new way of thinking about the protein,” said Pincus, whose lab studies protein homeostasis. “If you can just hear a sour note and immediately diagnose a mutation, that could be quite a lot better than painfully going through amino acid by amino acid.”

“We use music for a lot of things,” Middleton said. “Sports, worship, the concert hall, storytelling. Why can’t we use music for our data?”

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  • I can’t see this being much more than a novelty–or perhaps an assist for visually impaired scientists. It seems like instead of “painfully going through each amino acid” you instead have to “painfully go through listening to each note”?

    The key question isn’t “can audio be used”, but can it do something differently and more efficiently than other methods. I’m not sure that’ll be true.

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