A strange song, full of pumping percussion and instrumentals with random patterns, began to erupt from the speakers.
David Sun Kong ’01, SM ’04, PhD ’08 stood on stage at this year’s International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM). “This,” he told the 6,000 participants, “is what your collective microbiome sounds like.”
The project, called Biota Beats, got its start at iGEM just last year. Biota Beats works by taking swabs from different parts of the body, incubating the bacteria on “biota records” (laser-cut, acrylic records that contain media, or bacteria food), and then using algorithms to analyze data about the microbes and convert that data into music. For a single person’s Biota Beat, different musical instrument represents each body part, creating a literal human symphony.
The Biota Beats team developed and played the iGEM song, UNI-VERSE (“one song”) using samples from all participants across the world with each continent representing a body part, to celebrate what a diverse, global community like iGEM can accomplish.
For Kong, it’s more than just an interesting audio-visual experience: it’s part of his mission to see if hip-hop can make biotech broadly accessible. “How do we move beyond technical diversity and bring in cultural, creative, socio-economic diversity? Can we bring biotech to the masses in a powerful way?” he asks.
“Through the arts, we can communicate challenging ideas we couldn’t access other ways. Hip-hop is one of the greatest cultural languages of our time. Music can be the access point for people to learn about science.”
The team has already created Biota Beats for DJ Jazzy Jeff and HUBweek cofounder Linda Henry SM ’05 (Kong was a featured speaker at this year’s HUBweek), with geneticist George Church’s in the works. They’ve already been featured in STAT and Gizmodo.