Genetic Music—Twanging the Double Helix

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Twanging the double helix

The folks over at DNA Art have been transforming people's genetic information into wall sized canvases for a while. Now, Greg Lukianoff, president of one of my favorite non-profits, the feisty and effective Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has launched a new site, the Genetic Music Project, where people who have transformed bits of their genetic codes into music can submit their tunes. Here's how Lukianoff explains it:

Since all genetic information can only come in the language of four nucleotides (A Adenosine C Cytosine G Guanine T Thymidine) it is fairly easily conveyed in musical form. Another way of thinking about it is that each and every one of us and all life on this planet is made of music.

Back in 2008 my friend Liz Wade and I sent away to 23andme.com to get our genetic code read and from there we used the code to create music. Take Heroin Addiction for example: Liz simply assigned A, C and G to those notes, and assigned T to a F sharp. She then repeated the "opening" 10 nucleotides sequence several times. But that is just one way to do it. To be true to the music inherent in the sequences the only consistency that has to be maintained is that—as long as you're within the same genetic marker—the nucleotides always have to be the same note, whether you assign A to A or A to G sharp.

Some of the fun ways I think this could be expanded would be to take on two characteristics delineated in the genetic markers, assign different instruments to each gene marker and different notes to the nucleotides within each genetic marker and then play them in parallel. In that way you can have multiple instruments, and more than just four notes.

I also think that there is great fun to be had with metaphorical battles, like Heroin Addiction versus LongevityAlcohol Dependency versus Schizophrenia, or in wicked combinations like Heroin Addiction plus Alcohol Dependency plus Schizophrenia.

But, then again, I am no musician and I would really like to see what your brilliant minds and the brilliant minds you know might come up with. Go forth and musicify!

There's a nice FAQ that explains the goals of the project and how to participate. The tune derived from the gene associated with the propensity to especially enjoy heroin has a certain Philip Glasseque charm.

Back in 2000, I reviewed an art exhibit at Exit Art in Manhattan which featured some of the ways in which artists were just beginning to engage with biotech, e.g., genetically enhanced glowing green rabbits, and installing in bacteria a DNA version of the Bible verse Genesis 1:26: "Let man have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves over the earth."

As Reason readers know, I have put my genotype screening results online for all to explore at the SNPedia. See also my recent article, "I'll Show You My Genome. Will You Show Me Yours?"

Kudos to Dan Hayes.

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  1. Shit, mine came out sounding just like “MacArthur Park.”

  2. I should get some dope and spend all night listening to this shit. Some of it is awesomely spacey.

  3. Move over Aphex Twin, here is Helix Twin.

  4. I wonder what Steve Smith’s DNA sounds like?

  5. 57%% of you can smell asparagus metabolites in urine

    So, Ronald, have you found this skill to come in handy?

  6. Hey Ronald, Thanks so much for picking this up! It’s a fun project and given that you can mix and match nucleotides for different conditions/traits, and have them stand in for everything from notes to pitches to coordinates the possibilities are somewhere in the endless range. Also, check out what my friend did with the genetic marker for Restless Leg Syndrome (a condition I actually have): http://bit.ly/iyUuBP

    It’s nearly 100% pure code. If you know musicians who also happen to be science geeks, let them know about this!

  7. A much better idea would be to make music from the amino acid sequence of a protein. You might be able to relate structure to musical form with codons. The nucleotide sequence, on the other hand, really has no intrinsic structural value.

    1. Yes, you are actually one of several people to suggest this. I used the material I was able to gain from my own DNA screening to give it a “personal” angle that tied to specific characteristics. Do you know how I would go about getting the amino acid sequences for the genetic markers described? I think of GMP as a, forgive the expression, organic project so I am happy to grow it into new approaches.

  8. A techno band from the 90s called The Shamen have a track on there Axis Mutatis album that was based on the DNA coding for Serotonin. I dropped acid and listened to that song, many many times.

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