Michael Garfield – How To Live in the Future: August 2007

21 August 2007

The Music of Proteins

By now, all of us have probably seen a visual representation of a protein: some coiling, twisted affair, appropriately elegant and clumpy (these are, after all, "the building blocks of life" - which is, in aesthetic self-similarity, poised somewhere between awkwardness and grace). What most of us haven't experienced is listening to a protein - or, rather, the musical read-out of a protein's primary structure (the sequence of amino acids of which it is "composed").

Thankfully, in our age of gleeful synaesthesia, the good doctors at UCLA (a team led by Dr. Jeffrey H. Miller) have transcribed the sequences of several major proteins to sound by assigning each amino acid its own musical note and rhythm based on its chemical characteristics. The result is a library of often bizarre, occassionally glorious short pieces that squirm with an evocative lilt (complete with staff music, should you decide to learn how to play, for example, "Horse Hemoglobin"). Some kick a pretty latin groove; others are (at least according to the scientists) reminiscent of Chopin.

The system by which these proteins are translated into memorable tunes is informed by both biology and music theory (and therefore, psychology) - operating with a geometry more artful than the simple "one note per amino acid" correlations used by previous teams. In fact, the team has assembled a page of Art & Science collaborations that helped inspire the project.

I highly recommend you visit Gene2Music's fascinating and enjoyable page, at which you can even input your own base pairs into Convert-A-Gene to create a catchy musical number out of any gene sequence - thus, ushering in the age of writing a hit single with your paternity test.

(Written for iggli.com)