Skip to Content

A Musical Score for Disease

Converting genetic activity into music may be a way to monitor health.
July 18, 2008

When set to music, colon cancer sounds kind of eerie. That’s the finding of Gil Alterovitz, a research fellow at Harvard Medical School who is developing a computer program that translates protein and gene expression into music. In his acoustic translation, harmony represents good health, and discord indicates disease.

Connecting the dots: A Harvard researcher has translated genes (circles) into music by charting the relationship (lines) between them and determining key networks (red nodes). Each network is assigned a musical note.

At any given time in each of our cells, thousands of genes are churning out their molecular products while thousands more lie senescent. The profile of which genes are on versus off is constantly changing–with specific diseases such as cancer, for example.

Searching for a more simplified way to represent the complex library of information inherent in gene expression, Alterovitz decided to represent those changes with music. He hopes that doctors will one day be able to use his music to detect health-related changes in gene expression early via a musical slip into discord, potentially improving a patient’s outcome.

The first step in the gene-to-sound conversion was to pare down multiple measurements to a few fundamental signals, each of which could be represented by a different note. Together, the notes would form a harmonic chord in normal, healthy states and become increasingly out of tune as key physiological signs go awry, signaling disease.

Multimedia

  • Listen to examples of gene-based music.

Alterovitz employed mathematical modeling to determine relationships between physiological signals. Much like the various systems in an automobile, many physiological signs work in synchrony to keep a body healthy. “These signals [are] not isolated parts,” says Alterovitz. “Like in a car, one gear is working with other gears to control, for example, power steering. Similarly, there are lots of correlations between physiological variables. If heart rate is higher, other variables will move together in response, and you can simplify that redundancy and information.”

The Sound of cancer: A population of genes and their related proteins in a model of colon cancer has been transposed into “music.” The result is an “inharmonious” composition, compared with healthy samples that sound more harmonious.

Using data collected from a study of protein expression in colon cancer, Alterovitz analyzed more than three thousand related proteins involved in the disease. He whittled down the thousands of proteins to four key networks, using various genetic databases that catalog relationships between genes and proteins. He then assigned a note to each network, and together, these notes formed a harmonic chord. He compared the “music” of normal, healthy human data sets to that of the colon-cancer samples and found that, according to his model, colon cancer sounded “inharmonious.”

Researchers may be able to translate other diseases into music by “tuning” the system that Alterovitz has developed. For example, researchers can identify protein networks related to the disorder of interest and then assign notes that, in combination, form inharmonious chords, compared with their healthy counterparts.

He adds that the technique may have applications outside medicine, such as for simplifying information for air-traffic controllers, and in any other industry that requires analysis of large data sets. There is also an opportunity to use protein music purely for music’s sake: a DJ in the Boston area has expressed interest in playing Alterovitz’s “music” in local bars–a potential revenue stream for musician and mathematician alike.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

wet market selling fish
wet market selling fish

This scientist now believes covid started in Wuhan’s wet market. Here’s why.

How a veteran virologist found fresh evidence to back up the theory that covid jumped from animals to humans in a notorious Chinese market—rather than emerged from a lab leak.

light and shadow on floor
light and shadow on floor

How Facebook and Google fund global misinformation

The tech giants are paying millions of dollars to the operators of clickbait pages, bankrolling the deterioration of information ecosystems around the world.

masked travellers at Heathrow airport
masked travellers at Heathrow airport

We still don’t know enough about the omicron variant to panic

The variant has caused alarm and immediate border shutdowns—but we still don't know how it will respond to vaccines.

egasus' fortune after macron hack
egasus' fortune after macron hack

NSO was about to sell hacking tools to France. Now it’s in crisis.

French officials were close to buying controversial surveillance tool Pegasus from NSO earlier this year. Now the US has sanctioned the Israeli company, and insiders say it’s on the ropes.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.