MSU professor combines heavy metal, biology in research project

MSU assistant professor of biology Brandon Barton discusses MSU graduate student Mariah Hodge’s research. The two collaborated, along with other MSU faculty and students, on a study examining the effects of sound on plant and animal ecosystem, by testing the effects of various types of music. (Photo by Beth Wynn, MSU)

Staff Writer

A Mississippi State University laboratory recently plucked the strings on some pretty rockin’ research.

MSU Department of Biology assistant professor Brandon Barton and a team of students looked closely at the effect of various music and sounds on ecosystems. Baton said he was inspired while listening
to one of his favorite heavy metal bands.

“I was listening to AC/DC, and I heard the song, and I thought to myself Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution, that’s a testable hypothesis,” Barton said. “The alternative hypothesis is that rock and roll is noise pollution.”

The project involved placing samples of Asian lady beetles (ladybugs) in controlled environments with soybeans infested with aphids, a common pest of plants. The researchers then played various music or sounds into the environments and measured the biomass of the plants and the number of aphids remaining after a given period of time. In addition to AC/DC’s album “Back in Black,” some environments received other classic rock including Lynyrd Skynyrd, Metallica and Guns ‘n Roses. In addition, others received the album “Wanted! The Outlaws,” which features outlaw country legends Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glasser. Still another group received the British folk band Warble Fly, while another heard constant sounds of a city, including jackhammers and aircraft taking off.

The findings disputed AC/DC’s hypothesis.

“We immediately discovered that after about a day or a half day, 15 hours or so, the ones who had been exposed to the hard rock music, AC/DC, or even the city sounds, those loud kind of harsh sounds really reduced the number of aphids they consumed by a lot,” Barton said.

He said the number of aphids on the plants exposed to the heavy metal and city sounds was drastically higher than the number in the other samples.

“We did that experiment,” Barton said. “We put the plants in the chambers by themselves. We put the plants in chambers with aphids onthem by themselves. When we did both of those experiments, the plants didn’t careand the aphids didn’t care about music.”

He said as soon as the ladybugs were introduced, a stark difference was noticed, with the predators eating virtually all of the aphids. However, in the environments with rock music and city sounds, the predators consumed drastically fewer aphids.

“In the one with the AC/DC blasting, the predators didn’t control the aphids, and I think we ended up with something like 180 aphids per plant on average,” Barton said. “That many aphids on one plant is enough to actually hurt the plant, so we saw a reduction in the plant biomass. The AC/DC indirectly reduced soybean production.” While he emphasized he had not proved this, he said he believed the difference was due to some attribute of the music making it more difficult for the ladybugs to find the aphids.

“That noise must simulate a predator or some other disturbance in the environment, so they stop feeding and maybe spend more time watching for predators, but it could also be that the music just makes it harder to catch an aphid,” Barton said.

He said predation rates returned to the same level as the others when the volume was turned down.

Barton also said the two students working under him on the project both decided to pursue graduate studies in biological sciences, rather than their original programs. He then acknowledged his students and colleagues for their role in the research.

“I don’t think anybody’s actually concerned about rock and roll affecting soybeans,” Barton said. “The idea is the proof of concept that noise pollution can affect soybeans. We used rock and roll, but it could be the noises
from cities encroaching into agricultural landscapes, highways, tractors.”

He said his research was the first to show the effect of noise pollution on an entire ecosystem.

“When you perturb or change one thing in the system, one species is affected, every other species can potentially be affected.”

The paper was dedicated to AC/DC rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young, who died as the paper was completed.