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Scientists Build Silk And Then Listen To It

An unusually broad collaboration of researchers from MIT, Boston University, and Tufts University suggest that music theory and composition may shed insight into novel biomaterials.
Musical score derived from the protein patterns
Credit: J. McDonald (Tufts University)

The study, published this week in the journal Nano Today, sought to connect the organizational structure and function of the proteins in spider silk to compositional structure and function in music. The researchers believe that material properties like strength, flexibility, and elasticity, may be apparent in a musical rendition of the protein organization. In turn, the theories of musical composition may help identify structures for novel biomaterials.

Silk is a unique biological material that has unparalleled strength while maintaining flexibility and elasticity. It can be fabricated in the lab, at low cost and room temperature and has wide applicability to biomedical and structural engineering.

Research by MIT professor Markus Buehler, among others, has recently demonstrated that silk's versatility comes from the organization of the proteins of which it is composed.

Varying the organization of the proteins in silk, scientists can alter the strength, flexibility, and elasticity of the strands. Buehler's earlier research found that the proteins in silk can be organized into a pattern of hydrophilic and hydrophobic building blocks. The hydrophobic areas caused stiffness and strength, while the hydrophilic regions lead to flexibility and elasticity.

Simulation of the molecular structure of a designed and synthesized spider silk.
Image: M. Buehler (MIT)
Playing with these basic building blocks, the researchers designed the silk material from the bottom-up, by organizing individual proteins to make silk with different properties.

David Kaplan, a chemical and bioengineer at Tufts University, modified the silk-producing genes to create specific sequences of proteins. Joyce Wong, a bioengineering at Boston University, invented a tiny device that imitates a spider's spinning organ, called a spinneret, to spin these proteins into spider silk with new material properties.

Despite these robust experimental methods, actively predicting and designing what structural organization of proteins will result in silk with specific properties remains a formidable task. Scientists often rely on an educated trail-by-fire method to find successful combinations. Instead, these researchers relied on a computer model of the protein building blocks to design specific protein organizations that they thought would have promising properties when spun into silk.

Here's where the science took a note out of a score. The scientists then collaborated with a mathematician, David Spivak at MIT, and a composer, John McDonald, at Tufts, to remap the organization of the proteins in the spider silk onto the structure of musical theory and composition. You can hear the sound of silk on Buehler's research page or in the flute piece in the middle of this MIT Video:

In re-envisioning protein organization as a musical composition, the researchers hoped to "develop a systematic approach to store the complex information learned from the physical experiments, simulations, and modeling in a concise form and exchange the insight with other fields of science and art."

Indeed, as Buehler describes in the video, McDonald's compositions sound different and qualitatively reflect different patterns of music, which (through the remapping) reference structural differences in silk. The brittle silk sounds harsh, the sinewy silk sounds fluid. Of course, that makes some sense, since the compositions were based on the silk structures.

In turn, the researchers hope that the melodies and technical structure of music theory may provide direction for fabricating silk with different material properties.

I love that this study acknowledges the patterns of structure and function across disciplines and I am always interested in how science can learn and interact with nature, art, and society. But, I was a little surprised to find the musical remapping of silk proteins at the heart of the Nano Today research article. I wasn't able to reach any of the authors of the paper, but I would love to learn more about the motivations behind this project, and even what quantitative or qualitative methods they anticipate developing to reverse engineer a piece of music into new silken thread.

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  1. Now. that's quite interesting.

    I have always been fascinated by music theory (while knowing rather little of it), but the fact that it can be used as a physics research tool is really unexpected and may actually make me learn music study at last.

  2. Seems like they set out to write a TED talk, and accidentally submitted it to a scholarly journal.


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