The sound of genetics

Music, biology professors team up for inventive class to turn gene mutations into sound

What does a gene sound like when it mutates? That seemingly absurd question is one that biology and music students work together to answer in a course that combines big data and sound to let researchers “hear” a mutation.  

The course, created by music professor Reginald Bain and biology professor Jeff Dudycha, is part of a National Science Foundation-funded research project the pair are working on that looks at the mutational variance of the transcriptome and the origins of phenotypic plasticity —just hum along if you don’t know the lyrics here.  

For the class, eight undergraduate biology majors teamed up with six composition students — both graduate and undergraduate — to complete four projects using computer-generated music to represent spontaneous genetic mutations.  

“It was the best teaching experience I ever had,” says Bain, who has degrees in mathematics and computer science as well as music composition. “It exceeded all our expectations.” 

Bain has experience in musically mapping large data sets and other numerical information. In this case, the process, called sonification, can help students better understand the consequences of spontaneous mutation by hearing it happen.  

Genetic information gets mapped to musical parameters like pitch, intensity, duration and timbre,” Bain says. “You can then experience the mapping with your ears.” 

But, almost as important for this class was simply understanding the nature of interdisciplinary research. 

“They were working on a team where they were the expert for one aspect of the study and they were relying on someone else to be the expert on another aspect,” Dudycha says. “In most professional careers, you have to work with others and trust that they can do the things that you can’t.” 

While the biology students in the class all had some music experience, none of the composers had strong science backgrounds. So, the biologists had to explain enough science so the musicians would understand what they were aurally mapping.  

“We had no idea of what the students could reasonably accomplish,” Dudycha says. “Reg and I were flying by the seats of our pants.”  

Bain notes, however, that about two years of planning went into creating the course. The two alternated lectures on biology and music, then brought in the composers to help the scientists realize their ideas in sound. 

“We let the scientists be scientists and the composers would come in and map the sound,” Bain says. “There was a lot of training and teaching at disparate levels.” 

The projects were so successful that one of the biology students is extending her research to become her Honors College thesis. And Dudycha and Bain plan to offer the class again next year.  

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