The Music of Microbes

How to cope with absurd amounts of data may be the defining problem of 21st-century science. As a systems biologist who uses computational modeling to find patterns in data, Peter Larsen works in the smoldering core of that problem. He also really likes jazz. While he sits in his office at Argonne National Laboratory, thinking about how to find patterns in data—and how to present those patterns in a way that means something to other humans—he often listens to jazz.

When microbiologist Jack Gilbert, Larsen’s colleague, asked about the possibility of using music to represent patterns of microbial diversity—in data from a long-running project in the Western English Channel—Larsen saw an immediate connection to jazz. Classical music is “very structured,” says Larsen. “And microbial life is not as structured.” But microbial life does have repeating motifs—daily, seasonally, pegged to longer-term El Nino or La Nina cycles. “These are very amenable,” says Larsen, “to the kind of musical approach of something like jazz.”

So Larsen made music out of microbial life in the sea.

Just to back up for a second: The data, collected by Gilbert and others, is part of an effort to examine the microbes that live in the Earth’s oceans, soils, and air. Microbes are the dominant form of life on this little planet of ours–there are roughly a nonillion of them (that’s a one with 30 zeroes)–and they’re largely responsible for how nutrients and energy and all kinds of vital chemicals move around. The English Channel project involves sequencing DNA found in the seawater and trying to piece together a sense of how some of these microbial systems work. How do thevarious organisms interact with one another? How do they respond to changing conditions like temperature, nutrients, acidity? The research generates terabytes upon terabytes of data.

To turn some of it into music, Larsen mapped environmental conditions–daylight, temperature, phosphorous level–to specific chords. When the conditions change, the chords change. Then he took the microbial concentrations at each of those environmental conditions—how much of a certain type of microbe exists at a certain temperature, say—and mapped each one to a scale. The chords play in a particular scale, depending on how the environmental conditions affect the size of the microbe communities. “The same population would sound different in the key of sunlight,” says Larsen, “than in the key of nitrogen.” The key of sunlight? That’s genius.

Finding a way to express the beauty of these systems really struck a chord (sorry) with Larsen. “Scientists are reluctant to use the words beautiful in a context of analysis,” he says, but the music allows people to understand “that these systems are in and of themselves beautiful.”

His favorite composition is called “Fifty Degrees North, Four Degrees West”—the coordinates designating the sample site in the Channel.

“In that one, there is a chord progression that is taken from the environmental parameters over the course of a year,” Larsen explains, “along with a series of five different melodies.” Each melody represents the relative abundance of a different group of microbes. As the year progresses, the pattern of chords repeats under the melody.

Larsen was initially surprised by the flurry of interest in this work. But he thinks he understands what’s going on. “This has identified a hunger for representing complex data in simple ways,” he says. I couldn’t agree more. Music tells a story, and stories are how humans make sense of the world.

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