Coronaviruses get their name from the crown of spikelike proteins that surround them. Now, the protein spikes of the novel coronavirus have been turned into an intriguing musical composition — one researchers hope could inspire new ways to fight the virus.

Spike proteins serve a powerful function for the novel coronavirus. They enable it to attach to human cells and then hijack them so the virus can replicate.

Think of spike proteins as special keys in search of a human lock. In the case of the novel coronavirus, formally known as SARS-CoV-2, the spike protein binds to human cells’ receptor proteins called angiotensin converting enzyme 2.

While all coronaviruses rely on spike proteins to attach to human cells, SARS-CoV-2’s spike protein is particularly good at it. Researchers at the University of Minnesota recently discovered that SARS-CoV-2’s spike protein has attributes that make it attach at least 10 times more firmly to human receptor proteins than other coronaviruses.

SARS-CoV-2’s spike protein consists of three delicately folded chains of amino acids. Markus Buehler, a musician and an engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has turned that complex structure into a piece of music.

Buehler and his colleagues recently invented a way to translate amino acid sequences like the ones that make up SARS-CoV-2 into sound using the virus’s genetic sequence and an algorithm that translates its amino acids and their structures and molecular vibrations into sound.

Featuring the koto, bells, flutes and other instruments, the nearly two-hour-long composition is deceptively peaceful — kind of like the virus itself.

The music “doesn’t really convey the deadly impacts this particular protein is having on the world,” Buehler writes. “The music is a metaphor for [the virus’ ability] to deceive the host and exploit it for its own multiplication.”

Perhaps it could also inspire a way to keep the protein from invading human cells — and not in the way you might think. Buehler and his colleagues think protein-generated music could be used as an alternate way to visualize the complexity of proteins, and eventually find places to target with drugs.

Listen to the composition at