Making Music From The Genome Of SARS-CoV-2

Colorized scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic cell (blue) heavily infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles (yellow), isolated from a patient sample. NIAID (CC BY 2.0)

It might sound like the jaunty beeps of Brian Eno playing with a Gameboy, but these are the sounds of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19. In an ambitious "lockdown project", a scientist has created music from the genome of SARS-CoV-2 by representing the genetic code as musical notes. 

Nowadays, Dr Mark Temple is a senior lecturer in Molecular Biology at Western Sydney University, but he spent his self-proclaimed "misspent youth" as a professional drummer in the Australian jangle-pop band The Hummingbirds who toured the festival circuit alongside the likes of The Cure, The The, Ride, and other big names of the jangly post-punk music scene in the late-1980s and early-90s. 

Although now an academic scientist, he still thinks like a musician. Temple has previously created music from the DNA sequences of humans using a process called sonification, the use of sound to represent data. When the Covid-19 pandemic started to rock the world earlier this year, he started to wonder how the SARS-CoV-2 genome might sound using this technique. 

"Maybe it was a coping mechanism to distract me from the incessant news cycle about the virus which was causing me stress," Dr Temple told IFLScience. 

However, this wasn’t just a project to pass the time during the lockdown, nor does he wish to make light of the ongoing pandemic; Dr Temple hopes his work shows a unique approach to further understanding the viral RNA genome and says it could help to illustrate many of the features found in the genome's sequences. 

"This is an interesting clash between science and art," Dr Temple added. "It’s a useful tool to display things that we know, but it’s not in itself going to cure anybody. However, it does make you think about the virus in a linear way because that’s the way music plays, from start to end and in that order." 

"It may help another person deal with the virus, whether that be a geneticist enquiring about the sequence or someone who finds pleasure listening to the music." 

The fruits of the research were recently published in the journal BMC Bioinformatics. You can listen to a short segment of the symphony in the video player above and below. 

Here’s how it works: the genetic code of SARS-CoV-2 is held on single-stranded RNA (as opposed to double-stranded DNA). DNA and RNA are like a recipe book, coding for the production of thousands of different proteins. Although this can contain a huge amount of complexity, the code on RNA is primarily made up of just four nucleotide bases: G, C, A, and U (DNA is similar, but with a T as a fourth base). In total, the genome of SARS-CoV-2 contains around 30,000 of these bases. With the help of computer software, Temple mapped each nucleotide base to correspond to different music notes.

"That’s one layer," he explains. "I then look at other combinations of nucleotide bases such as pairs – for example, GA, AU, etc – and important groups of three – GAU, AUC, etc – bases. This makes two more layers of audio. Since there are more combinations of these, I can make more notes across different octaves, which gives more harmony to the sound. I keep doing this with up to 10 or more layers of sound, and each captures different information about the genomic sequence."

To finish it all off, computer-generated audio from the genome was then mixed with Temple playing drums and his friend Mike Anderson playing guitar (video player below).

In the complete genetic symphony, you can hear the sound of the coronavirus doing two things most genomes do: “translation”, the process by which proteins are synthesized from the information contained in the RNA, as well as “transcription”, the process of making an RNA copy of a gene sequence. To play the entire genome, it takes around 96 minutes in translation mode, corresponding to approximately five nucleotides per second. By listening for different features in the music, it’s possible to distinguish between different features of the genome. 

So, how does it sound? As devastating as Covid-19 has been for the world, the genetic code of the coronavirus creates a surprisingly upbeat piece of music. Instead of the crashing screeches and doom-filled drones you might expect, it sounds much like the jolly soundtrack to an early video game. 

"It was so nice-sounding that I had to go back to the code and make it sound a little sadder and a bit more dissonant," he explained. "It just sounded too happy to be derived from something so insidious."

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