April 30, 2007

The Song Is You

Gil Alterovitz, a research fellow at the Harvard Medical School, has devised a way of musically representing genetic sequences.* Alterovitz hopes to use the technique as a real-time health monitoring tool. As reported in the Harvard Crimson, Alterovitz presented some of the tunes as part of the Cambridge Science Festival last week:
While showing protein structures on a screen, Alterovitz played the compositions made when he matched up certain instruments to protein structures, creating harmonious melodies for healthy patients and atonal ones for sickly ones.
Now, is that really accurate? Every time I've watched a consumptive perish on the operatic stage, it's always been to the accompaniment of ringing triads. (Although all those "classical music is dying" types will probably accuse Alterovitz of swiping their diagnostic tool.) On the other hand, I do like the idea of a hospital ringing with the cacophony of hundreds of genomic melodies in Cagean counterpoint.

Alterovitz may end up with a hit on his hands, according to this report:
By turning the components of genetic and proteomic data into musical notes, he was able to represent biological networks such as gene regulation and protein interaction in a way that sounded exciting to a broad audience of all ages.
Hey, if he can make proteomic data sound exciting to any age group, the sky's the limit.

*Update (5/1): Dr. Alterovitz notes in the comments that it's the genetic expression (for example, the resulting manufactured proteins), not the sequence itself, that's being musicalized.


Ben.H said...

The composer Martin Wesley-Smith was encoding DNA sequences into music twenty years ago. His piece "Beta-Globin DNA" for Fairlight synthesiser is the best known work, but DNA sequences turned up in some of his other electronic and acoustic works.

I remember him saying that some medical researchers first put him up to it, as a way of detecting repeated patterns or anomalies in large amounts of genetic data by "hearing" them.

Mark said...

So let me get this straight, you walk into the office to get your DNA set to music, they hook you up to some contraption (I imagine a metal helmet with electrodes), flip a switch and suddenly out of the speakers comes Albert Ketèlbey's 'In a Persian Market.' Chorus and all. Dr. Gil shrugs his shoulders and gives you a sympathetic look that says he understands and that yours is not the first great grandmother to tell a little pedigraic fib. I can't wait.

Matthew said...

If you're not familiar with Wesley-Smith (I wasn't), his Web page can get you up to speed—music, politics, and organic farming in more-or-less equal quantities. (Some of his more recent multimedia works, written with his brother, look very intriguing indeed.)

And yes, excepting perhaps the electrode-helmet, that was more or less the impression I got from the article as to how this would be used diagnostically, though I'm not sure the geographic vagaries of one's family tree would show up quite that clearly. (If it did, you could plug me in and hear Jenny Lind and Luisa Tetrazzini singing a duo-version of Flotow's "Last Rose of Summer.")

Gil said...

Just a quick note that it wasn't DNA sequences, but rather gene expression that the project seeks to put to music... While the DNA sequences are static, the expression changes over time depending on state...

Matthew said...

Dr. Alterovitz: thanks for the clarification, which, in retrospect, I should have realized as being much more suited to diagnostic analysis. I still wonder: how immediate and real-time would this approach be in practice?