Saturday, June 9, 2007

Listening to Protein Music

Watch out, meat lovers: Molecular biologists at UCLA are creating musical compositions based on protein sequences! I just had to check out this article when I saw the headline, and it’s really interesting material.

Since proteins are made of up to 20 different amino acids in a linear sequence, the UCLA researchers thought that they could assign a different chord to each amino acid. They chose 13 root-position chords (all “white-key”, spanning 2 octaves) and then 7 first-inversion chords, each of which identifies a specific amino acid. Rhythm is then dictated by the “codon distribution” of the amino acid (don’t ask me what this means; you can read up on it yourself here). Then voilĂ , you just write out the piece using the chords and rhythm. What’s really interesting is the purpose behind it:

"We assigned a chord to each amino acid," said Rie Takahashi, a UCLA research assistant and an award-winning, classically trained piano player. "We want to see if we can hear patterns within the music, as opposed to looking at the letters of an amino acid or protein sequence. We can listen to a protein, as opposed to just looking at it."
The idea is to try to get more people (especially children) interested in the mechanics of molecular biology without boring them with bland visual sequences of letters. Dr. Jeffrey Miller, who leads the project, says:
"We believe this can be a tremendous teaching tool to get children, non-scientists and the visually impaired interested in proteins and molecular biology," Miller said. "When I was a kid, I listened to 'Peter and the Wolf,' which was a fabulous way to introduce young people to musical instruments and classical music."
Go here to “listen” to some different types of proteins like cytochrome and hemoglobin. The funny thing is that a lot of this stuff sounds like Bartok or Satie. One of the researchers, who is a classical musician as well, wrote a variation of one of the examples. Could it be a protein nocturne? Or is it an amino acid andante?