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How a string quartet can play your genes

 Composer Deirdre Gribbin and scientist Dr Sarah Teichmann's collaboration led to the creation of a musical score based on the patterns in human DNA.
Composer Deirdre Gribbin and scientist Dr Sarah Teichmann's collaboration led to the creation of a musical score based on the patterns in human DNA.

A friendship struck up in the photocopying room of Trinity College Cambridge, in the UK,  between two senior academics – one in the arts, and one in the sciences – has led to an innovative translation of science: a piece of music for a string quartet.

Hearing your Genes Evolve had its world premiere in London in 2013; its sell-out debut performed by the Smith Quartet, a UK-based contemporary music group, under the golden hull of the 19th century sailing ship, the Cutty Sark, in Greenwich.

The composition was the product of a year-long collaboration between classical composer Dr Deirdre Gribbin and scientists led by Dr Sarah Teichmann, then at the UK's Medical Research Council (MRC) Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK.

Their aim with the innovative musical score – which was based on sequences from a major human genome endeavour called the 1000 Genomes Project, was to convey the complexity of human genetics in a way that was accessible and personal to the general public.

‘The interesting thing about the genetic code which is similar to music, is that music switches quickly from one scale to another – so does the code.’

Dr Deirdre Gribbin

The cooperation came in 2006, when Dr Gribbin had her son Ethan. Ethan was born with trisomy-21, or Down’s syndrome, where each cell in the body has three copies of chromosome 21 instead of two.

‘I became very interested in the scientific background to what having trisomy-21 really was,’ said Dr Gribbin. ‘The general public don’t really know that much about DNA.’

She and Dr Teichmann, who is now a research group leader at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory’s European Bioinformatics Institute, and also a senior group leader at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, both in Cambridge, started to talk in earnest about the possibility of gaining funding for a collaboration to produce a public work for science.

In 2012, Dr Gribbin won an artist-in-residence award from the Leverhulme Trust to work with Dr Teichmann and her group at the MRC.

The initial months were a learning process on both sides. Dr Gribbin immersed herself in the scientific world, while the MRC scientists learnt how to explain their work to a non-scientist. ‘As a research scientist you get so embroiled in details and think that everybody knows. But we have to start from scratch,’ said Dr Teichmann, who is a European Research Council grantee. 

200-page printout

To decide what data to use for the composition, Dr Gribbin looked at a 200-page printout of DNA sequence from the 1000 Genomes Project – a massive international effort to sequence the DNA of over 1 000 individuals in a bid to catalogue genetic variation. Dr Teichmann’s group used data from this project for bioinformatics as their work focused on understanding DNA sequences and how they relate to protein structure.

With this mass of information, Dr Gribbin settled on a 20-page fragment on which to base her composition. Though the scientific and music worlds were in many ways incredibly different, there were also underlying factors in common. ‘Our work is all about searching for patterns in the genome,’ said Dr Teichmann.

But while scientists do this using computer algorithms, ‘in music I think the composer does that almost intuitively,’ Dr Teichmann said.

Scientist Dr Sarah Teichmann (l) and  composer Dr Deirdre Gribbin (r)Scientist Dr Sarah Teichmann (l) and  composer Dr Deirdre Gribbin (r)Composers use rhythmic patterns as a basic component of their music – often weaving together repeating groups of notes called polyrhythms simultaneously. So the basic four-letter structure of DNA gave Dr Gribbin a good starting point for creating carefully chosen groups of notes – which she terms ‘cells’. ‘This is a pool of notes you can work from, transpose, and manipulate,’ she explained.

She said the natural DNA bases of A (adenine), C (cytosine) and guanine (G) lent themselves to musical cells from the ‘normal musical scale we know’, which is centred around the pitches A, C and G.

She then harnessed T (thymine), which is not in the musical alphabet of A to G, to create another musical element: that of dissonance using E flats and black notes (the black keys on a piano). ‘I created a kind of harmonic tension with T,’ she said.

By translating the genome printout, Dr Gribbin was able to discern and incorporate many rhythmic patterns.

Pedal note

‘The interesting thing about the genetic code which is similar to music, is that music switches quickly from one scale to another – so does the code, there are lots of switching patterns in DNA,’ she said.

She used sudden changes in harmony to denote major code switches, and in other places she used what is known as a ‘pedal note’ to usher in a switch in the genetic code. A pedal note is a long, weighted, usually bass, note underscoring the music, which moves and transforms over it.

The technique is reflected in the genetic code itself. Dr Gribbin gives the example of having an ACG pattern which then switches one of the bases to a T. There are hints of the switch to a T before it actually happens.

For the debut performance of the piece, the team used another simple but creative tool to show the code switches: they got all four musicians in the Smith Quartet to wear hats to represent the genetic code. Every time there was a significant change in the music, the players or appropriate player would throw off their hats to reveal yet another underneath.

The performance was included in a presentation Dr Gribbin and Dr Teichmann made at the EU’s Innovation Convention in March this year. You can see it 20 minutes into this webcast of the presentation. 

This autumn, German film production company Filmtank is due to air the film The Dark Gene, or in German Das dunkle Gen, which features the music. Here is a clip from the movie:

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