• MIT professor created musical representation of COVID-19.
  • Says it is a clearer version of the vibrating virus than a static diagram.
  • Haunting music could also have scientific applications.
  • Hear the interview on our World Vs Virus podcast.

We're all now familiar with the spiky look of the coronavirus protein. But what do you think it might sound like?

An engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has shown us. By assigning musical notes to each part of the virus' structure, he has created a whole composition which, as it turns out, is similar to the ambient music pioneered by Brian Eno.

"What you hear is a musical representation of the virus spike protein, which is the protein that affects the human cells," Professor Markus Buehler told the World Vs Virus podcast.

His musical representation of the virus is, he says, more accurate than classical static diagrams that fail to show the virus' constant movement and vibration.

"They don't actually look like they look in a chemistry textbook because atoms and molecules are continuously moving. They kind of look like a vibrating string."

And it is that vibration that fascinates Buehler, who is looking at whether it can be exploited to combat the virus.

"That is something we have been thinking about for this protein and other proteins in the last couple of years, to use the knowledge of the nanoscopic vibrations as a way of actually disintegrating the structure.

"I do a lot of research on fracturing of materials in my work and a lot of times we're trying to prevent fracturing from happening. But in this case, we actually are trying to find a pathway to deliberately destroy a structure. Vibrations are a really important pathway to do that."

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

And the interlinking harmonies created by musically mapping proteins might also tell us something about our own creative process.

"Counterpoint is something that musicians have played with and explored for a couple of centuries and we actually find that this idea of counterpoint is really prominent in the structure of proteins, in particular in the folding, as well as the folding of our brain," Buehler said.

That means we could look at music, "not only as a display of art or creativity, but actually as a way of learning about the underlying structure that has created this art" - the human brain.