Science Writer John Rennie: Have Tongue, Will Babble

A Little Gene Music (Eine Kleine Nukleotid Musik)

DNA and music.

DNA and music.

Credit: Gil Alterovitz, via Technology Review

It won’t be Lady GaGa. But maybe a little Lady GAGATCAGCTCATTCGAC…?

On Tuesday at the British Royal Society of Music, the New London Chamber Choir will publicly perform a new choral piece with the lilting but jargony name “Allele.” The genetic allusion isn’t a superficial conceit: it is genuinely genomic music. Each of the 40 members of the chorus will be singing a score based on part of his or her own DNA.

The project began with geneticist Andrew Morley and the Wellcome Trust’s “Music from the Genome” project, which had sequenced the DNA of 40 gifted singers to learn whether they had any distinctive genetic commonalities that might be indicative of musical ability. The findings of that genomic study have not yet been published. In the interim, however, Morley—who had sung with choirs in his youth, according to the BBC—decided to use the genomic sequences as the raw material for an artistic work.

He turned the data over to composer Michael Zev Gordon, who first translated the strings of nucleotides into notes, then rendered them musical through his selection and rhythmic arrangement of them. The poet Ruth Padel provided the lyrics for the singers. As Pallab Ghosh of the BBC writes:

To begin with, there is a single voice singing a simple rhythmic phrase; but as the piece develops, more voices join in – conveying the biological idea of replication and reproduction.
At its climax, each member of the choir is singing their own unique genetic code – resulting in everyone singing a subtly different song.

Morley and Gordon seem not to be the first to think of translating genome sequences into music. Indeed, some artist-scientists have attempted the maybe even more intriguing trick of turning music into DNA and inserting it into living cells.

Research fellow Gil Alterovitz at M.I.T. and Harvard Medical School has developed a computer program that translates information about cells’ gene and protein expression into musical sequences. His purpose is scientific rather than aesthetic, however. Because our brains are particularly adept at picking up patterns in the sounds we hear, Alterovitz hopes that his system could help researchers identify subtle derangements in the synchrony of gene expression that might underlie disease states.

For example, since the 1990s, musician Peter Gena seems to have been developing compositions based on DNA, with the assistance of geneticist Charles Strom. For the multimedia installation Genesis, they worked with Eduardo Kac, who created a synthetic gene sequence based on a Morse code translation of a line from the eponymous chapter in the Bible: “Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” The DNA representing that sentence was inserted into bacteria and grown in a petri dish; fluorescent proteins helped to show how the plasmids holding the synthetic DNA spread throughout the cell population, moved horizontally into other cell lines and mutated over time.

In the past decade, fungal microbiologist Aurora Sánchez Sousa of Madrid’s Ramón y Cajal Hospital and Richard Krull have similarly used genetic sequences as the baselines for musical compositions, which were then elaborated upon further in accordance with Krull’s inspirations. The results of their labors are available on the Genoma Music site.

Back in 1998, musician Susan Alexander of Sacramento worked with biologist David Dreamer to make music out of the molecular vibrations of DNA in response to illumination by various wavelengths of light.

And currently, poet Christian Bök is working on writing poetry that can be translated into DNA and then inserted into bacteria as a working gene (not just junk DNA filler). Just to add an additional level of difficulty to the project, though, he also wants the amino acid sequence in the protein made by this gene to itself be comprehensible as a poem different from the one in the DNA. Yikes.

By the way, the bacterium into which Bök wants to insert his multilayered genetic composition? It’s the extremophile Deinococcus radiodurans, well known for its near invulnerability to radiation damage. D. radiodurans is a good choice because the DNA-repair properties that give it high radioresistance also make it extremely resistant to mutation—which means that if Bök succeeds, he won’t have to worry as much about mutation reducing his genomic art to gibberish.

Of course, that will also mean that Bök’s creation should be able to survive for a long, long time. That’s one way to achieve artistic immortality.

A personal request: Perhaps one of you readers can help me with a request that no amount of racking my memory or searching online has yet solved. While writing this article, I was reminded of an anthologized science fiction story that I read, oh, probably 35 years ago. It concerned an inventive genius and music lover who feared that when civilization collapsed (as it surely would), all the beautiful musical works of genius would be lost forever, because recordings would perish and musical notation would be inscrutable. He therefore invented a machine that, when it received musical input, produced living creatures; his idea was that these creatures would survive in the wild and somehow preserve the music until such time as someone invented a similar machine that could change the beasties back into music again. The creatures in question all had traits that somewhat reflected the qualities of the music or its composers: I remember that the “wagner beasts” were threatening and wolflike. As you might imagine, this scheme did not work out well.

Can anyone identify the name and writer of this story? Not remembering it has bothered me for eons. Thanks.

4 Responses to “A Little Gene Music (Eine Kleine Nukleotid Musik)”

  1. Dave Pentecost

    See http://www.philipkdick.com/media_intro.html

    Philip K. Dick story mentioned in New York Times Book Review
    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/09/books/review/Lethem-t.html

    Author Jonathan Lethem contributed a review of Roberto Balano’s novel 2666. Mr. Lethem begins his review by discussing Philip K. Dick’s short story “The Preserving Machine” :

    “In Philip K. Dick’s 1953 short story “The Preserving Machine,” an impassioned inventor creates a device for “preserving” the canon of classical music — the sacred and, he fears, impermanent beauties of Schubert, Chopin, Beethoven and so forth — by feeding it into a device that transforms the compositions into living creatures: birds, beetles and animals resembling armadillos and porcupines. Outfitting the classic pieces in this manner, then setting them free, the inventor means to guarantee their persistence beyond the frailties of human commemoration, to give them a set of defenses adequate to their value. Alas, the musical-animals become disagreeable and violent, turn on one another and, when the inventor attempts to reverse-engineer his creations in order to prove that the music has survived, reveal themselves as a barely recognizable cacophony, nothing like the originals. Or has the preserving machine revealed true essences — irregularities, ferocities — disguised within the classical pieces to begin with?

    Dick’s parable evokes the absurd yearning embedded in our reverence toward art, and the tragicomic paradoxes “masterpieces” embody in the human realm that brings them forth and gives them their only value.”

    • John Rennie

      Terrific! Thanks, Dave. Over the past few decades, I can’t begin to tell you how much it’s bugged me that I couldn’t place the name or author of this story.

      I should have figured it was Philip K. Dick….

  2. Dave Pentecost

    Deep in my Ur-memory (from JFK years!) has been this story, food for nightmares and genomically prescient:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Planet_Named_Shayol

    Your journey to “putting your finger on it” inspired me to google and exorcise it. We hope.

    Re: Dick – he’d stop the plot to drop some obscure music reference. I remember one of his protagonists identifying the harmonics in some background noise.

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