Musical Viruses

03 May 2009

Interview with 

Stephan Zielinski,


Helen -  Well it's not just science that we get from a sequence of DNA but we can also use it to generate music.  Have a listen to this.

Stephan Zielinski - Swine Flu Haemagglutinin 

Sounds pretty good, doesn't it?  Well we've got Stephan Zielinski with us.  He created this music using the sequence of amino acids in a protein in the swine flu virus called haemagglutinin and that's one that causes red blood cells to collect together.  So Stephan, why make music from a virus that might trigger the next big pandemic? 

haemagglutininStephan -   Well I was just sitting around feeding my dancing bats on the high lithium tap water and a buddy of mine from the Mayo Clinic sent out the sequence that they had just come up with for this particular variation of hemagglutinin and I was wondering if I could translate it into something that I would have an easier time understanding and may be hear the functional groups - if I could translate them to the music then perhaps a symphony has movements so I was hoping that I could hear a division within the music between the functional groups, and I couldn't but may be other people can. 

Helen -   So tell us how did you get about making this piece of music?

Stephan -   Well I am going to cheat and answer a closely related question which is when you listen to the music what parts of what you're hearing came from me and what parts really came from the virus?  Viruses obviously don't share a lot of characteristics with music.  They don't have a key, they don't have a time signature and they don't have orchestrations.  So all of that stuff is things that I came up with and put into the piece itself. 

What really came from the virus and all of this is the melody.  Now proteins are made out of 20 amino acids in life as we know it and these 20 amino acids come in various classifications, you know a specific amino acid might be hydrophobic or it might not be.  It might be aliphatic; it might be aromatic.  What I did was I took the amino acids and divided them up by chemical category and assigned each category to an instrument.  So for instance the piano got nine of the amino acids. 

From there I sorted them by van Der Waal volume which is approximately how big the amino acid, how much space it takes up, and then by analogy to basic acoustic I assigned the large ones to relatively low notes and the small ones to relatively high notes.  So when you listen to the music the interplay between the various instruments and the specific melody that's picked out, that's all come from the virus. 

Helen -   Excellent.  Well we are certainly enjoying listening to it and it's quite a new experience for us here.  So thanks Stephan.  That was Stephan Zielinski and he has taken the sequence of amino acids in the swine flu virus and used it to sequence some music.  You can find out more about him online at 


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