The Music of Genetic Disease

Illustration for article titled The Music of Genetic Disease

When you develop cancer, the disease creates a musical dissonance in the functioning of your genes. That's the strange finding of Harvard researcher Gil Alterovitz who used the activity of genes over time (modeled here with dots and lines) to set the human genome to music. He assigned specific notes to relationships between genes and proteins. When the music of a typical strand of DNA is played, it sounds soothing and harmonic; but a diseased strand of DNA grows more dissonant as its signals become less healthy. Has Alterovitz discovered some secret relationship between human biology and music?


Very unlikely. In fact, Alterovitz designed the software that translates gene expression into sound as a diagnostic tool. He mapped healthy genome functions to a harmonic sound, adding dissonant notes for each problem as it arises. According to Technology Review:

He hopes that doctors will one day be able to use his music to detect health-related changes in gene expression early via a musical slip into discord, potentially improving a patient's outcome.

The first step in the gene-to-sound conversion was to pare down multiple measurements to a few fundamental signals, each of which could be represented by a different note. Together, the notes would form a harmonic chord in normal, healthy states and become increasingly out of tune as key physiological signs go awry, signaling disease.

Alterovitz employed mathematical modeling to determine relationships between physiological signals. Much like the various systems in an automobile, many physiological signs work in synchrony to keep a body healthy. "These signals [are] not isolated parts," says Alterovitz. "Like in a car, one gear is working with other gears to control, for example, power steering. Similarly, there are lots of correlations between physiological variables. If heart rate is higher, other variables will move together in response, and you can simplify that redundancy and information."

Alterovitz is not the first to see a musical pattern in genome expression. Genomics experts have been using algorithms borrowed from music to discover genes for several years.

A Musical Score for Disease [Technology Review]


Everything is a vibrational frequency (a sound) so therefore, everything is music of one kind or another. Over one hundred years ago, the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said something like every art aspires to the perfection of music, because music is the art form most purely like reality.