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Making Music out of Genes

A UCLA graduate student creates melodies out of genetic and protein sequences, allowing us to “listen” to DNA.

Listen to this.

It’s the music created by the human protein thymidylate synthase A (ThyA). Really. At least, it’s the notes created to “play” the music of this string of amino acids, with each amino acid assigned a chord.

Rie Takahashi, a graduate student at UCLA, dreamed up the idea of making music out of proteins when she read about a blind meteorology student at Cornell who converted the colors of a contoured weather map into tones corresponding to different hues.

Takahashi hopes her creation will help disabled geneticists “read” sequences using sound, she writes in a report in Genome Biology. “We wanted to be able to move away from a two-dimensional string of letters across a sheet of paper, and to see if adding another dimension–sound–would help,” Takahashi told Nature.com.

Helping blind biologists “hear” DNA is laudable, but I’m also finding the notion of amino acids as chords strung together to be something eerie and wonderful, like putting my ear to a seashell and hearing the ocean. In addition, the idea makes sense, given that music is essentially digital–a series of precise calibrations of sound that the ancient Greeks thought of as a form of mathematics. For instance, the ancient Greek mathematician Pythagoras developed “The Music of the Spheres” to describe the proportional movements of the planets, moon, and sun in what he believed to be whole-number ratios identical to musical intervals.

Checking out Takahashi’s Gene2Music website, I discover that other musically inclined scientists have applied notes and sounds to biological activities, such as the functions of a cell. You really need to check out these strange, compelling tunes.

Takahashi’s website also allows you to enter any amino-acid sequence and have it translated into music. Try it, and listen to the slightly dissonant but curiously soothing sounds of protein sequences that are in a sense singing.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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