Week 4/ Case Study:Protein to Music

credit to phys.org

In the Gene2Music project, 2007, UCLA undergraduate Rie Takahashi collaborated with her professor Jeffrey H. Miller in the field of Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics to raise questions about science intersecting with music in the context of making genetic biology more approachable to the public and also helping those scientists who are visually impaired to understand better about genetics. Produced in a laboratory in UCLA, the work describes its physical and media components. By transforming and selecting protein sequence into music notes, the work raises the question about genetic modification at work as an effort to appeal to the public.

The project converts genome-encoded protein sequences into musical notes in order to produce auditory protein patterns. Proteins consist of 20 different amino acids, and Takahashi uses these different amino acids to create notes by assigning one note for each amino acid resulting in a 20-note scale. However, because a 20 note scale is too large of a range to produce harmonious melody, Takahashi and Miller decided to reduce the scale down to 13 “by pairing similar amino acids together and used chords to chord variations for each amino acid” (Takahashi). Takahashi also utilizes codon distribution to include the rhythmic component to the music by basing on the frequency of codon used to specify a particular amino acid.

credit to Gene2Music
Final amino acid to music assignment. credit to Gene2Music

A detailed explanation of reducing note and assigning rhythm to produce the final piece can be found at their website: http://www.mimg.ucla.edu/faculty/miller_jh/gene2music/home.html

Takahashi has published her work in the UCLA Undergraduate Science Journal and also the website above. One particular protein she has transformed into music was the Huntington protein, which plays a major role in Huntington’s disease. It is an example of a triplet repeat disorder that causes the protein to lose its proper function. As a result, it can lead to neurological disorder. The reason why Takahashi wanted to transform this type of disordered protein was because it is easier to identify just by hearing the note rather than looking at the protein’s visual representation. It also leads to new access for the visually impaired scientists.

Despite its good intention, Takahashi has neglected the issues that could possibly rise by selecting which amino acid goes with which chord for the sake of producing better music. Although Takahashi is not necessarily modifying the gene of the protein, she is still selecting which gene would work better with the other to produce a better music component. In the beginning they have stated that they did not like the 20 note scale that is done simply by assigning which amino acid goes with which note. It is almost like saying “I do not like the way this body works so I’m going to tweak it just a little bit.” Of course this is a little bit of a slippery slope, but this is a possible issue that people might raise in the future.

From this article, “Biologists convert protein sequences into classical music”, Takahashi is already working on the next phase of this research by adding variations to the music. There are also people suggesting her to compose musical pieces out of this project and combine them into a CD. As we can see, a possible commodity issue is at play here and might cause the project to stray away from its original intention. Let’s hope that this will not be the case, however.

-Kammy Yuan


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