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Q&A: Markus Buehler on setting coronavirus and AI-inspired proteins to music

Image courtesy of Markus Buehler.

Translated into sound, SARS-CoV-2 tricks our ear in the same way
the virus tricks our cells.

The proteins that make up all living things are alive with
music. Just ask Markus Buehler: The musician and MIT professor
develops artificial intelligence models to design new proteins,
sometimes by translating them into sound. His goal is to create new
biological materials for sustainable, non-toxic applications. In a
project with the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab,
Buehler is searching for a protein to extend the shelf-life of
perishable food. In a new
study
 in Extreme Mechanics Letters, he and his colleagues
offer a promising candidate: a silk protein made by honeybees for
use in hive building. 

In another recent
study
, in APL Bioengineering, he went a step further and used
AI discover an entirely new protein. As both studies went to print,
the Covid-19 outbreak was surging in the United States, and Buehler
turned his attention to the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2, the
appendage that makes the novel coronavirus so contagious. He and
his colleagues are trying to unpack its vibrational properties
through molecular-based sound spectra, which could hold one key to
stopping the virus. Buehler recently sat down to discuss the art
and science of his work.

Q: Your work focuses on the alpha helix
proteins found in skin and hair. Why makes this protein so
intriguing? 

A: Proteins are the bricks and mortar that
make up our cells, organs, and body. Alpha helix proteins are
especially important. Their spring-like structure gives them
elasticity and resilience, which is why skin, hair, feathers,
hooves, and even cell membranes are so durable. But they’re not
just tough mechanically, they have built-in antimicrobial
properties. With IBM, we’re trying to harness this biochemical
trait to create a protein coating that can slow the spoilage of
quick-to-rot foods like strawberries.


Read more here

Kim Martineau | MIT Quest for Intelligence

April 2, 2020