Microbe Music: Scientists Turn Algae Data Into Songs

cyanobacteria or blue-green algae
Cyanobacteria, also referred to as blue-green algae (above), are abundant in the English Channel and represent an instrument in "microbial bebop," music created using data from microbes collected in the Channel. (Image credit: Specious Reasons)

There's a springy, almost cheerful feel to the song called "Bloom." And "Far and Wide" sounds a bit unearthly.

Neither tune, however, can be credited to a human composer; they more rightly were written by microbes.

These pieces of music were created by transforming data from blue-green algae into musical notes. The songs were a way for scientists to look for patterns in readings from microbial samples collected in the western English Channel.

"This was an attempt to approach a dataset in a different way," said Peter Larsen, a computational biologist at Illinois' Argonne National Laboratory. [Listen: Algae Songs]

Larsen and his colleagues created different compositions to represent different aspects of their data. For example, the tune "Bloom" illustrates how some algae species bloom occasionally, becoming much more abundant for short periods of time.

"The melody is the abundance of microbial species — low notes correspond to lower abundances, and high notes correspond to higher abundances," Larsen told LiveScience. "Chord progression is taken from physical parameters — day length, chlorophyll concentration in the water. When we combine those two, we select a note in the chosen octave that is in harmony with the chord that associates with the physical parameters."

Another song called "Blues for Elle" highlights seasonal changes in the algae population, mapping notes to parameters such as temperature and concentrations of chemicals that affect the abundance of algae.

Larsen said the musical results in these songs were indeed useful to illuminate connections between parameters and to make sense of large sets of data. Plus, they don't sound half bad.

"It's a pleasant surprise that you get music-like responses from the data," Larsen said. "The patterns that exist in seasonal variation in microbial communities lent themselves very nicely to music-like patterns."

Still, Larsen, who describes himself as an "armchair fan of jazz" with no musical training, said his bebop-inspired creations aren't quite ready for the Grammys.

"Clearly, they're not great art, but it's fun to see that we've found an element that really seems to intrigue people about combining scientific data with musical compositions," he said.

The same algorithm used on the algae could also be used to convert a wide variety of datasets into musical form. Already, the researchers have applied it to measurements of the symbiosis between soil bacteria and plants.

This project isn't the first time scientists have created compositions from measurements. Astronomers converted star data from NASA's Kepler telescope into reggae songs, and readings from the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator were used to create a musical piece about the Higgs boson particle.

Larsen said an added benefit of turning his data into music is its ability to reach people who gravitate more toward art than science.

"These systems are inherently beautiful and I have always seen that beauty in these systems," he said. "The fun part is to try to take some of that and express it to people who are less familiar with microbial ecology."

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Clara Moskowitz
Clara has a bachelor's degree in astronomy and physics from Wesleyan University, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She has written for both Space.com and Live Science.