Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.
You’ve probably seen dozens of images of the novel coronavirus—now responsible for 1 million infections and tens of thousands of deaths. Now, scientists have come up with a way for you to hear it: by translating the structure of its famous spike protein into music.
The sounds you hear—the chiming bells, the twanging strings, the lilting flutes—all represent different aspects of the spikelike protein (above) that pokes from the virus’ surface and helps it latch onto unsuspecting cells. Like all proteins, the spikes are made of combinations of amino acids. Using a new technique called sonification, scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology assigned each amino acid a unique note in a musical scale, converting the entire protein into a preliminary musical score.
But in real life, these amino acids tend to curl up into a helix or stretch out into a sheet. Researchers capture these features by altering the duration and volume of the notes. Molecular vibrations due to heat also get their own sounds.
But why would you set a virus to music? The new format can help scientists find sites on the protein where antibodies or drugs might be able to bind—simply by searching for specific musical sequences that correspond to these sites. This, the researchers say, is faster and more intuitive than conventional methods used to study proteins, such as molecular modeling. They add that by comparing the musical sequence of the spike protein to a large database of other sonified proteins, it might be possible to one day find one that can stick to the spike—preventing the virus from infecting a cell.
As for the instruments, they were entirely the researchers’ choice. In this case, a Japanese koto plays the main notes—soothing sounds that might bring some comfort in a time of trouble.