SOUNDS: Musical Genes

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Science  10 Nov 2000:
Vol. 290, Issue 5494, pp. 1047
DOI: 10.1126/science.290.5494.1047a

It may seem more like fun than science, but some folks enjoy turning genetic code into music. The idea goes back to at least 1979, when writer Douglas Hofstadter mused about how mRNA being read by a ribosome is much like magnetic tape moving through a tape player. Then in 1983, biologist David Deamer recorded a tape called DNA Suite that assigned each of the four bases a distinct tone. Not surprisingly, genetic music has a presence on the all-encompassing Web, where several sites feature sound bites based on sequences of protein and DNA.

Although renditions share one attribute—a few tones played somewhat randomly—the choice of instruments, interpretations, and artistic embellishments can make them sound very different. NetWatch encountered snippets reminiscent of everything from a rudimentary piano exercise to a repetitive Philip Glass piece to eerie background music from an X-Files episode. The Nucleic Acid Database features some orchestral-sounding compositions based on DNA; mismatches take the form of a clashing dissonant chord. At this educational site, which favors the xylophone, you can try to hear the difference between mouse and human trypsin. To sample the work of a hard-core genetic composer, go to this commercial site where the sounds include collagen, slime mold DNA, and a mutating HIV sequence.

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