If proteins could talk, what would they say? Josiah Zayner still doesn't know — but he does have a sense of what they'd want to sing. That's because Zayner has developed a new musical instrument that relies on infinitesimally small plant proteins to produce melodies.
Zayner, who recently completed a PhD in biophysics at the University of Chicago, has long been interested in merging biology with electronic interfaces. The driving force behind his instrument, called the chromochord, was a desire to harness "these incredible proteins that power our lives every single day, but that nobody can see and that nobody really thinks about," he says. "I want people to experience those somehow."
To create the chromocord, which he started working on in 2011, Zayner used what are known as LOV proteins — put simply, plant proteins that are sensitive to light. These particular proteins, for instance, are behind the phenomenon whereby a plant will gravitate in the direction of a shining beam of sunlight. Having studied LOV proteins while obtaining his PhD, Zayner was well-versed in their mechanisms, and decided to utilize those isolated from oats for his chromochord.
"It's much, much harder to play than it was to make."
The instrument itself contains 12 vials of oat proteins, with the samples in each vial engineered to respond slightly differently to stimulation from light. When blue LED light strikes a vial, a spectrophotometer inside the instrument measures the protein's reactions. The device then transmits that data to software that's programmed to convert the information into sounds. Of course, the proteins themselves don't actually make noise — Zayner is essentially translating their reactions to stimulus into music.
Each vial in the chromochord can be linked to a different sound, like bells, drums, or piano. By pushing various buttons, Zayner is able to control how much light a given vial is exposed to — which then determines the note that'll be played. That process is outlined in the above video, which Zayner created for The Verge, along with a performance (at 3:52, after Zayner drinks a gin and tonic). "It wasn't easy to develop," Zayner says of the chromochord, currently in its second iteration. "But trust me, it's much, much harder to play than it was to make."
Microscopic musical protégé
Zayner has been working with Francisco Castillo Trigueros, a composer, to create complex musical arrangements using the instrument. And though he's still perfecting the chromochord, Zayner has already set his sights on yet another microscopic musical protégé: human cells. Earlier this week, he launched an IndieGoGo campaign to raise $20,000 for the development of an instrument that would elicit sounds from cultured skin cells. By exposing those cells to sounds, Zayner anticipates, he'll catalyze a reaction in the cell's ion channels that can be translated into a musical response. "The idea, really, is to eventually culture my own cells," he says. "So that I can be in a band with myself."