Collaboration between musicians, chemists yields innovative model


Photo courtesy of L. Brian Stauffer/Illinois News Bureau

Music professor and composer Stephen Andrew Taylor, biophysicist Martin Gruebele, and composer and software designer Carla Scaletti collaborated in creating a new model protein folding. The model uses sound and animation for students to better understand the topic.

By Thomas DeMouy, Staff Writer

A collaboration between scientists and musicians at the University has produced an improved model for teaching the protein folding reaction, an important function that occurs in all living cells. 

Proteins typically go from an unfolded state to a folded state within cells of the body, but the sequence of folding is often difficult for students to conceptualize, according to several members of the model design team. 

The new model incorporates sound along with an animation to help students understand this concept with more than one sense. 

Taras Pogorelov, research assistant professor in LAS with a chemistry background, helped develop the project. He emphasized how difficult it can be to make accurate models.

“When you play physics, you try to go for simple models,” Pogorelov said. “One cell can have a billion atoms easily. Each atom has three coordinates, so it’s like three billion dimensional space.”

Faculty from the music department collaborated with Pogorelov to produce the model, which features audio and visual cues to indicate each stage of the protein unfolding. According to Martin Gruebele, professor in LAS, adding sound to the model is referred to as sonification. 

“Sonification allows us to take these huge data files that are actually so complicated that they are not even easy to visualize because usually people are just happy to visualize things,” Gruebele said. “ But listening to them allows us to extract information quite efficiently.”

The model is a two-dimensional reduction of the process that features only two units that are distinguished by color. These units connect lines that can complete one 90-degree turn per iteration.

Carla Scaletti, president of Symbolic Sound, a music software company that played a role in developing the audio components of the model, expressed her fascination. 

“To me, it’s like a game,” Scaletti said. “You start with the string and on each turn you’re allowed to make one of them move.”

Gruebele said there weren’t many setbacks with the project, and it was “really more of a learning process.” 

The project started in 2020, and everyone involved agreed that the collaboration between music specialists and scientists went seamlessly.

“These guys are extremely open-minded,” Scaletti said. “I’ve worked with other scientists who weren’t as open to other fields, but this has been a really exciting and unique experience.” 

According to Gruebele, this is a form of collaboration that both groups would consider for future projects.

[email protected]