If you think about the coronavirus, your mind probably goes to lockdowns, hospitals, and the strange new habits we’ve formed this year. But for some scientists, the virus is essentially nothing more than a piece of code — a code that can be studied, understood, and even turned into music. Mark Temple of Western Sydney University recently created a tool to turn the genetic code of the SARS-CoV-2 novel coronavirus into a pleasant-sounding piece of electronic music.
In an article in The Conversation and a recent publication in the scientific journal BMC Bioinformatics, Temple explains how he converted the viral code into musical notes. He’s done this before, and already had a method to turn DNA code to music. The SARS-CoV-2 genetic information is encoded in RNA. This is very similar to DNA, so he could use the same method to assign different notes to different parts of the virus’ code.
The genetic material of SARS-CoV-2 includes the messages to create different proteins, which make up the virus and interfere with our bodies if we get infected. Understanding these proteins and their code is the key to fighting the virus.
The code seems relatively simple, and follows a predictable pattern: it includes signals for the start and end of genes and for the amino acids that make up the proteins encoded by the virus. It’s the same for every living organism. Temple followed these basic rules of genetics to assign sounds to different parts of the code. Now, certain patterns that have a biological significance (such as the three-letter codes that correspond to specific amino acids) each become a unique sound.
Temple is not the first to turn the SARS-CoV-2 virus to music. Earlier this year, Markus Buehler at MIT converted certain aspects of three-dimensional protein structures into sounds, and used that to make music from the coronavirus spike protein.
The practice of turning data into sound is called sonification. Besides creating interesting new sounds, sonification can have a scientific purpose. Sometimes listening to data instead of only looking at it can help researchers spot an unusual pattern. For example, astrophysicists have used sonification to discover irregularities in large amounts of data that they wouldn’t have been able to notice by eye.
And Buehler’ s sonification of protein structure data was part of a project where he and his colleagues used the music of existing proteins to train an algorithm to generate music that could correspond to possible new proteins, which might one day be used to create new biomaterials.
But for Temple, the main reasons to turn the coronavirus to music were to spark new insights into the viral code, as well as to create new music. That might seem frivolous, but in his piece in The Correspondent, Temple explains that he’s not trying to diminish COVID-19 in any way. “I don’t mean to trivialize the pandemic by thinking about the virus in musical terms,” he writes, adding, “when I think about the virus I see RNA sequences, and it’s my job to see relationships between structure and function.”
Reducing a virus to its genetic and protein codes is what makes it possible to spot very small irregularities that may be relevant at a larger scale. It’s how researchers keep track of the different strains of the viruses they encounter, for example, and that in turn helps them map how the pandemic has spread.
But the researchers who do that molecular work of peering at the code usually have no contact with patients at all. So when researchers like Temple or Buehler turn virus RNA or proteins into music, they aren’t immediately thinking about the rising numbers of COVID-19 death or the ongoing spread of the disease. They’re just seeing the structure and code of the molecules that make up the virus.
The end result of Temple’s work is a pretty cheerful tune that might inspire other scientists to look at particular parts of SARS-CoV-2’s genetic code and better understand how the virus works. But the music is also a reminder that even something as world-changing as the coronavirus is at its core just a piece of code — and thinking of it that way might make the prospect of tackling it a little less intimidating.