David Kong and his team are making music. But instead of sampling beats, they’re sampling bacteria.
“Music is one of the great universal languages of our human society. We thought this would be a really, really wonderful way to engage the broader public and get them excited about science through music,” said Kong, director of a new community biotechnology initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and founder of EMW Bookstore, a community space Cambridge, Mass.
Their project is called Biota Beats, an artistic endeavor in which they translate bacterial data into hip-hop melodies.
The idea first came about in 2016, when Kong’s team at EMW was brainstorming ideas to enter into iGEM, a synthetic biology competition in Boston. They were talking about the microbiome, the collection of bacteria living in the human body, when a turntable caught someone’s attention.
The multidisciplinary group of artists, musicians, scientists, and engineers started asking themselves how they could combine bacteria with music. The result was Biota Beats — a composition in which different bacteria came to be represented by different instruments.
Although they didn’t win, the project lived on long after they entered the competition. Kong and his team built a youth program around Biota Beats and even collaborated with hip-hop artist DJ Jazzy Jeff.
This year, Kong and his team are back at iGEM, where more than 300 teams from all over the world gathered at Hynes Convention Center to present their research and compete for prizes.
This time, they’re not competing. Instead, they’re creating a song out of the bacteria sampled from this year’s participants. Their song debuted at the closing ceremony.
To produce it, they collected bacteria from the competitors, with the teams from each continent assigned a body part to sample and one layer of the song.
Scalp bacteria from South America provided the percussion. Hand bacteria from Africa became a deep bass. Mouth bacteria from Europe turned into a jaunty, electronic melody. Ear bacteria from Asia gave the funky harmony, and nose bacteria from North America provided the atmospherics. Rounding out the composition was an energetic drum loop made out of elbow bacteria from Australia.
Combined, these bacterial beats became “Uni-Verse,” meaning “one song.”
“To me, it’s a really a poetic thing, because I think right now the world [has] got a very, kind of, divisive fractured kind of feeling to it,” Kong said.
“iGEM is such a wonderful example of a global community coming together around a love for science and around making the world a better place through biotechnology.”