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The Cutting Edge

Proteins in the Key of G

TALK ABOUT BREATHING NEW LIFE into old music. Molecular biologists at UCLA have translated protein sequences into original classical compositions.

“We converted the sequence of proteins into music and got an auditory signal for each protein,” explains Dr. Jeffrey H. Miller, distinguished professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics and a member of UCLA’s Molecular Biology Institute. “Every protein has its own auditory signature because every protein has a unique sequence.”

Illustration courtesy of Rie Takahashi and Dr. Jeffrey H. Miller/UCLA Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular GeneticsBy assigning each amino acid a chord, “we wanted to see if we could hear patterns within the music, as opposed to looking at the letters of an amino acid,” says Rie Takahashi, a UCLA undergraduate in microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics and a classically trained pianist. “So we can listen to a protein, as opposed to just looking at it.”

The building blocks of proteins are linear sequences of 20 different amino acids. Assigning one note to each amino acid results in a 20-note scale. Because a 20-note scale is too large a range, “we paired similar amino acids together and assigned chords and chord variations for each amino acid,” Takahashi says. “Each component of the music refl ects a specifi c characteristic of the protein. The rhythm is dictated by the protein sequence.”

In the music, individual amino acids are expressed as chords, and similar amino acids are paired. For example, the amino acids tyrosine and phenylalanine are both assigned a G-major chord but can be distinguished because the notes in the chord are arranged differently.

Takahashi, who conducted the research as an honors thesis, initially converted the amino acids and played the resulting music on the piano. Now the team is piloting a computer program, written by colleague Frank Pettit, that uses their translation rules to convert the protein sequences to music. They hope this will speed up the translation of large segments of genomes.

“We believe this can be a tremendous teaching tool to get children, non-scientists and the visually impaired interested in proteins and molecular biology,” says Dr. Miller, who is encouraging Takahashi to compile a CD of her compositions that contain variations of several proteins.

The journal Genome Biology published the fi ndings in May 2007.

 To listen to the protein compositions, go to www.mimg.ucla.edu/faculty/miller_jh/gene2music/examples.html

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