Genes come alive with the sound of music
Molecular geneticists riff with strings of protein-coding DNA.
Imagine humming along to horse haemoglobin or tapping your toes to transcription factors. Now you can, thanks to a pair of molecular biologists who have developed a way to turn such proteins into music.
Rie Takahashi, a graduate student in molecular genetics who has studied the piano since she was a child, developed the method as part of an undergraduate project for her supervisor, Jeffrey Miller. She says they were inspired, in part, by a blind meteorology graduate student at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, who developed a way of reading weather maps by converting the different colour gradations of a map into a range of tones.
They wondered whether something similar could help both the sighted and the visually impaired to visualize proteins, which are made up of amino acids coded for by 'letters' of DNA in a gene. "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," says Takahashi.
So Takahashi and Miller, who are based at the University of California, Los Angeles, developed a way of converting each of the 20 standard amino acids from which proteins are built into different piano chords. When played, the amino acids form a slightly disharmonious, but not altogether unpleasant tune, they report in Genome Biology1.
More water-loving or hydrophilic amino acids have been assigned a chord in a higher key, while water-hating or hydrophobic ones are lower. So similar amino acids sound alike. And the duration for which a chord is played is determined by the prevelance of its 'codon' (the three DNA letters that make up an amino acid) in the sequence. So amino acids that make up a good chunk of a protein will be played for longer than those that are rare within the protein. This gives the piece a rhythm that says something about the repetitive structure of the protein.
The duo offers a free online service, where you can enter the string of DNA letters for a protein-making gene (or even a random string of DNA) and immediately hear the result (see Gene2Music).
Takahashi says the most useful application of the musical protein project will be in helping to make a complex field interesting and comprehensible to the lay public. "Music is familiar territory," she notes.
Takahashi says she has used the music to explain basic genetic concepts to her piano teacher. "He was very surprised, and pleased," she says. "He said it sounded nicer than he thought it would."
Takahashi also says listening to proteins is helpful for developing an intuitive sense of some of the patterns that lie within genetic sequences. "When you listen to them numerous times," she says, "you start to hear a melody or a main theme arising from them."
Takahashi says she hopes the project will help visually impaired students conceptualize molecular genetics, although they haven't yet had any blind participants listen to or comment on the music.
Virginia Stern, director of the Project on Science, Technology and Disability at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC, says she's always slightly wary of projects that aim to make science more approachable for people with disabilities, but that have not been developed with consultation from disabled people. "There are lots of technologies for making science accessible out there. But they're usually developed by the people who have the disability, because they know what works best for them," she says.
However, the main thrust of Takahashi's project simply seems to bring together her interests in science and music.
"I'm currently working on my first original piano composition," she says. "It's a variation on the LacY permease protein."
- Takahashi R. & Miller J., et al. Genome Biology, (doi:10.1186/gb-2007-8-4-405).
- Hayashi K. & Munakata N., et al. Nature, 310 . 96 (1984).
- Ohno S. & Ohno M., et al. Immunogenetics, 24 . 71 - 78 (1986).