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Horizons

Scientists strike a chord with music based on the building blocks of DNA.

By Amanda Wren

April 15, 2003 | Celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the structure of DNA are by no means confined to the scientific establishment. The art world wants a piece of the action, too! The double helix has inspired numerous art exhibits, advertisements, and plays, denoting the impact of this icon in photography, sculpture, and literature. So it should come as no surprise that a group of scientists has produced a music CD based on the four building blocks of DNA.


"Genoma Music/The Genomic Sound"
Aurora Sánchez Sousa
www.genomamusic.com
The new CD is entitled "Genoma Music/ The Genomic Sound," and this, quite literally, is the "score." In her mission to bring science closer to music, Aurora Sánchez Sousa, head of the mycology section of the Ramón y Cajal Hospital in Madrid, interpreted and translated various genome sequences into musical notation. The resulting 10-track CD took her and her collaborators, French musician Richard Krull and clinical microbiologist Fernando Baquero, two years to complete.

Before pressing the play button, I must confess to smirking slightly at the composers' notion of linking the elemental do-re-mi musical scale with the four nucleotides of DNA. The composers assigned each occurrence of adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine to different notes of the musical scale, such that C = do, T = re, G = so, and A = la. These notes form the sequential bass notes that lay the foundation for the rest of the musical score.

The first track, "Basic Components," is aptly named. The loping melody, which depicts an impossibly idyllic setting, might be found on any new-age relaxation tape and would probably be appreciated best in a leisurely bubble bath.

However, the next track, "YAL069W," is in stark contrast. Based on a yeast DNA sequence, the music abruptly recalls the harsh reality of life. Via dramatic undertones courtesy of the cello, one can almost imagine the scene in a modern cytogenetics lab: bustling with real people, real DNA, and the specter of real menace lurking in the genes of microscopic organisms.

DNA on Display 
The New York Academy of Sciences exhibition "From Code to Commodity: Genetics and Visual Art" was part of several cultural events in New York designed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the structure of DNA.

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Sánchez Sousa's goal, which is outlined in the sleeve notes and accompanying Web site (www.genomamusic.com), reads (translated): "The melodies reflect the spirit, at the same time free and determined, by using changes in tone and different instruments."

Other tracks on the CD are based on human disease genes such as connexin 26 (a cause of deafness), repetitive DNA elements, and microbial genes. The music succeeds, at least in part, in evoking sadness, relaxation, and hope.

Indeed, one of the more ostensibly upbeat tracks on the CD actually holds a sad story. Based on the SLT2 gene sequence, "amanecer de Nohelly" is a delightful rhythmic piece dedicated to the wife of César Nombela, the former president of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), who suffers from a neurological disease. As with the other tracks, the introduction begins with the score assigned to the DNA sequence, followed by the melody, provided by guitar, cello, violin, and flute. This instrumental paella conveys a real Spanish flavor, particularly appropriate given that it was Nombela's research group that originally discovered the SLT2 gene back in 1991.

In this age of rampant genetic reductionism, we should be grateful that musical taste is not dictated by one particular gene! It would not surprise me if many listeners cynically dismissed "Genoma Music" as pretentious elevator music. But as a soothing remedy for a bad day languishing in the lab or captive at the computer, these varied musical offerings — the fusion of musical talent and scientific insight — could be enough to get your groove on.



Amanda Wren is international scientific communications officer at the National Cancer Center (CNIO), Madrid. Her musical tastes include flamenco, acid jazz, and boy bands. She can be reached at awren@cnio.es.



Eds. note: Details (in Spanish) on purchasing the CD are available at www.genomamusic.com. Proceeds will go to help needy children in Argentina.






For reprints and/or copyright permission, please contact  Jay Mulhern, (781) 972-1359, jmulhern@healthtech.com.