DNA, Like You’ve Never Heard It

Michael Gallant

Rie Takahashi, a young scientist from Los Angeles, has discovered an unexpected new tool that can help anyone, anywhere, begin to understand the hidden secrets of human genetics — the iPod.

“In my junior year at the University of California, Los Angeles, I took a seminar that Professor Jeffrey H. Miller was teaching called Science and Society,” said Takahashi, who has also studied classical piano for more than two decades. She said that one of the tasks he assigned that year, which was 2005, was “to break down the jargon that we often have in science and find ways to make it approachable to anyone.” Given Takahashi’s passions for music and science, she and Miller decided that her studies should pursue the nexus of those interests. “There are no language barriers when it comes to music,” she said.

Miller said that translating sequences of amino acids — a.k.a. the microscopic structures that help cells build important proteins like muscle — into music had been tried long before he and Takahashi began working together, and with no great success. “The naïve starting point is to assign a different musical note to each of 20 amino acids and whenever a certain amino acid appears in a sequence, you hear the corresponding musical note,” he said. The problem? Because any amino acid can appear next to any other one, the result can be music that chaotically jumps all over the place — “alien music,” he said, laughing.

To make genetically-sourced music more listenable, Takahashi instead created a computer program that assigned amino acids to trigger full chords instead of individual notes. She also paired certain similar amino acids together, having each trigger different inverted variations of the same chord. “Rie’s program created very pretty music,” said Miller.

But beyond making the results listenable, Takahashi’s program for translating genes into sound, dubbed Gene2Music by its creator, has compelling practical applications. “Sometimes it can be easier to hear patterns than to see them,” says Takahashi. “Huntington’s disease, for example, is caused by a repetition of certain amino acids, and if you listen to the Huntington’s protein, even if you don’t know anything about music, you can hear that same pattern repeating time after time and understand that something unusual is happening.” A medical school professor, years later, at UCLA continues to play that sound when teaching his students, Takahashi said.

Gene2Music has earned international attention and been used as a teaching tool in Mexico as well as in the United States; Takahashi and Miller have published scientific papers on the subject and have been featured on the BBC. Moving forward, Takahashi hopes to see the manifestations of Gene2Music expand beyond a tool to teach future doctors.

“Even though I orchestrated the music with synthesized instruments on my computer, it hasn’t been performed by a live orchestra,” she said. “I’d love to use the basis of this music to explore electronic and other genres of music. There’s a lot of information and data that we’d be able to creatively represent that way.”

Takahashi believes that continuing to examine amino acids through music could lead to scientific discoveries. Only some parts of amino acid chains actually create proteins, she said, while other parts of the same sequence control when that production happens. “There are lots of algorithms out there to predict that timing, but none are perfect,” she said. “Being able to hear the sequences … could help us find patterns that we’d missed before.”


To hear gene music, scan the QR code with your phone, or click here: https://goo.gl/zzVgf

Researchers at the European Bioinformatics Institute in England have found a way to store all of Shakespeare’s sonnets on synthetic DNA that takes up a speck-sized space at the bottom of a test tube.

DNA, Like You’ve Never Read It

Susan Milligan

William Shakespeare, it might be said, had great literature in his DNA. And because of groundbreaking research done by scientists in the U.S. and abroad, DNA is being used to store all of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Researchers at the European Bioinformatics Institute in England, developing an idea they came up with while chatting at a pub, have stored the poetry on synthetic DNA that takes up a speck-sized space at the bottom of a test tube.

“You could fit a whole library onto your key chain,’’ said Dr. George Church, a Harvard Medical School geneticist who authored a September paper about DNA storage with his colleague, Sriram Kosuri.

Along with Shakespeare’s sonnets, the Institute’s Nick Goldman and Ewan Birney have stored a scientific paper and a recorded clip from Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream’’ speech.

The two researchers employed error-free software so the information can be kept safe for thousands of years.

Why not just use your hard drive? “DNA is astonishingly stable,” Goldman said. “Because DNA is the basis of all life on earth, we’re still going to be able to read the information as long as there are technologically- advanced humans around. You wouldn’t trust your hard disk drive or a zip drive to work reliably after just a few years.’’

Harvard’s Church isn’t throwing away his zip drive just yet: the synthetic-DNA technology is expensive. Right now, he said, we would not consider using it to store videos of our everyday lives.

DNA, Like You’ve Never Seen It

“I was inspired by how important DNA is and how its magical structure informs so much of who we are. Packed in the little, tiny x’s, in a very special language, is a story about who you are and how you are going to live.” – Katarina Countiss, a student in Seattle, about her painting of DNA

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