Amino acids make beautiful music to design novel protein structures


There’s an app for that: Android users can now create their own bio-based musical compositions.

Nearly seven years ago, MIT scientists mapped the molecular structure of proteins in spider silk threads onto musical theory to produce the “sound” of silk in hopes of establishing a radical new way to create designer proteins. That work even inspired a sonification art exhibit, “Spider’s Canvas,” in Tokyo last fall. Artist Tomas Saraceno created an interactive instrument inspired by the web of a Cyrotophora citricola spider, with each strand in the “web” tuned to a different note.

Now MIT materials engineer Markus Buehler and his colleagues are back with an even more advanced system of making music out of a protein structure—and then converting it back to create novel proteins never before seen in nature. The team also developed a free app for the Android smartphone, called the Amino Acid Synthesizer, so users could create their own protein “compositions” from the sounds of amino acids. They described their work in a new paper in ACS Nano.

Much like how music has a limited number of notes and chords and uses different combinations to compose music, proteins have a limited number of building blocks (its 20 amino acids) which can combine in any number of ways to create novel protein structures with unique properties. Furthermore, “Any genre of music has patterns,” said Buehler. “You’ll see universality in terms of sound, the tones, but you also see repetitive patterns, like motifs and movements in classical music. These kinds of patterns are also found in proteins.”

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