Music to my… microbes?!

What you just heard was the sound of science to your ears. Biologist Peter Larsen of Argonne National Laboratory has come up with a new way to hear beyond the noise that large amounts of data create to listen to the song, or should I say, big picture?

Larsen and a team at Argonne sampled microbes, including bacteria and algae among other microorganisms, from the English Channel. Faced with an overwhelming amount of data, he decided he needed another way to make sense of it all. Larsen’s solutions are intricate songs that, to the untrained ear, sound like a scientist had some fun playing around in garage band.

The goal of Microbial Bebop is to relate the different types of data that are in a set, such as changes in bacterial populations over time to changes in temperature and natural compounds. Larsen created an algorithm that converts the data into sounds. Believe me when I say it’s a lot more complicated than I make it sound. Larsen inputs his data into the algorithm, and with the help of some musical software, it spits out a song.

All data is relegated to becoming notes or chords. The melody, made up of notes, and chord progression represents different elements from a data-set, such as structural changes in a bacteria community over time and changes in temperature or other compounds. Each measure of the song represents a single observation, and the song itself contains all observations from an experiment.

By designing the system this way, Larsen can easily compare multiple combinations of data sets. “The same set of data represented as notes will sound different when played relative to different data used to generate chords,” said Jared Sagoff, media relations specialist for Argonne.

Sagoff also mentioned that the number of transformations for a single complex data-set into music is almost unlimited.

“The amount of biological information that can be encoded in a single measure of music is considerable. For example, given two chords per measure with a possible selection of eight chords, a melody of six notes from a one-and-a-half octave range per measure, 12 possible patterns of note durations, and three possible patterns of percussion, there are 6.88 x 10109 possible unique measures, a number that far exceeds the estimated number of stars in the universe,” he said.

Although this auditory approach to analyzing data is not unique (in fact, it’s been done for data obtained from the recently discovered Higgs-Boson), it is rare that the results resemble music in any discernible way. In the piece found above, entitled “Far and Wide- Microbial Bebop”, fluctuations in the abundance of microbial populations influence the melody, while environmental conditions such as photosynthetically active radiation measurements and temperature determine the chords and key.

Here is another example, simply entitled “Bloom.” This one is my personal favorite.

In this piece, seasonal patterns in marine physical parameters determine the composition. Chords are generated from changes in photosynthetically active radiation and the melody is comprised of eight notes representing changes in temperature, soluble reactive phosphate, nitrate, nitrite, saline, silicate and chlorophyll A concentrations.

If you are interested and want to listen more, check out Fifty Degrees North, Four Degrees West and Blues for Elle, also on youtube.

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