Producing stronger silk musically

Markus Buehler and his interdisciplinary team (my previous posts on their work includes Gossamer silk that withstands hurricane force winds and Music, math, and spiderwebs) have synthesized a new material based on spider silk. From the Nov. 28, 2012 news item on ScienceDaily,

Pound for pound, spider silk is one of the strongest materials known: Research by MIT’s [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Markus Buehler has helped explain that this strength arises from silk’s unusual hierarchical arrangement of protein building blocks.

Now Buehler — together with David Kaplan of Tufts University and Joyce Wong of Boston University — has synthesized new variants on silk’s natural structure, and found a method for making further improvements in the synthetic material.

And an ear for music, it turns out, might be a key to making those structural improvements.

Here’s Buehler describing the work in an MIT video clip,

The Nov. 28, 2012 MIT news release by David Chandler provides more details,

Buehler’s previous research has determined that fibers with a particular structure — highly ordered, layered protein structures alternating with densely packed, tangled clumps of proteins (ABABAB) — help to give silk its exceptional properties. For this initial attempt at synthesizing a new material, the team chose to look instead at patterns in which one of the structures occurred in triplets (AAAB and BBBA).

Making such structures is no simple task. Kaplan, a chemical and biomedical engineer, modified silk-producing genes to produce these new sequences of proteins. Then Wong, a bioengineer and materials scientist, created a microfluidic device that mimicked the spider’s silk-spinning organ, which is called a spinneret.

Even after the detailed computer modeling that went into it, the outcome came as a bit of a surprise, Buehler says. One of the new materials produced very strong protein molecules — but these did not stick together as a thread. The other produced weaker protein molecules that adhered well and formed a good thread. “This taught us that it’s not sufficient to consider the properties of the protein molecules alone,” he says. “Rather, [one must] think about how they can combine to form a well-connected network at a larger scale.”

The different levels of silk’s structure, Buehler says, are analogous to the hierarchical elements that make up a musical composition — including pitch, range, dynamics and tempo. The team enlisted the help of composer John McDonald, a professor of music at Tufts, and MIT postdoc David Spivak, a mathematician who specializes in a field called category theory. Together, using analytical tools derived from category theory to describe the protein structures, the team figured out how to translate the details of the artificial silk’s structure into musical compositions.

The differences were quite distinct: The strong but useless protein molecules translated into music that was aggressive and harsh, Buehler says, while the ones that formed usable fibers sound much softer and more fluid.

Combining materials modeling with mathematical and musical tools, Buehler says, could provide a much faster way of designing new biosynthesized materials, replacing the trial-and-error approach that prevails today. Genetically engineering organisms to produce materials is a long, painstaking process, he says, but this work “has taught us a new approach, a fundamental lesson” in combining experiment, theory and simulation to speed up the discovery process.

Materials produced this way — which can be done under environmentally benign, room-temperature conditions — could lead to new building blocks for tissue engineering or other uses, Buehler says: scaffolds for replacement organs, skin, blood vessels, or even new materials for use in civil engineering.

It may be that the complex structures of music can reveal the underlying complex structures of biomaterials found in nature, Buehler says. “There might be an underlying structural expression in music that tells us more about the proteins that make up our bodies. After all, our organs — including the brain — are made from these building blocks, and humans’ expression of music may inadvertently include more information that we are aware of.”

“Nobody has tapped into this,” he says, adding that with the breadth of his multidisciplinary team, “We could do this — making better bio-inspired materials by using music, and using music to better understand biology.”

At the end of Chandler’s news release there’s a notice about a summer course with Markus Buehler,

For those interested in the work Professor Buehler is doing, you may also be interested to know that he is offering a short course on campus this summer called Materials By Design.

Materials By Design
June 17-20, 2013
shortprograms.mit.edu/mbd

Through lectures and hands-on labs, participants will learn how materials failure, studied from a first principles perspective, can be applied in an effective “learning-from-failure approach” to design and make novel materials. Participants will also learn how superior material properties in nature and biology can be mimicked in bioinspired materials for applications in new technology. This course will be of interest to scientists, engineers, managers, and policy makers working in the area of materials design, development, manufacturing, and testing. [emphasis mine]

I wasn’t expecting to see managers and policy makers as possible students for this course.

By the way, Buehler is not the only scientist to make a connection between music and biology (although he seems to be the only person using the concept for applications), there’s also geneticist and biophysicist, Mae Wan Ho and her notion of quantum jazz. From the Quantum Jazz Biology* article by David Reilly in the June 23, 2010 Isis Report,

I use the analogy of ‘quantum jazz’ to express the quantum coherence of the organism. It goes through a fantastic range of space and time scales, from the tiniest atom or subatomic particle to the whole organism and beyond. Organisms communicate with other organisms, and are attuned to natural rhythms, so they have circadian rhythms, annual rhythms, and so on. At the other extreme, you have very fast reactions that take place in femtoseconds. And all these rhythms are coordinated, there is evidence for that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>