By Fiddling Around with Nature, Susumu Ohno Finds He and Protozoa Make Beautiful Music Together

updated 04/18/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/18/1988 01:00AM

Ladies and gentlemen, before we begin the musical portion of tonight's entertainment, there are a few things you should be aware of in order to enhance your understanding and enjoyment.

As many of you may already know, every organism's genes are composed of strands of DNA, which in turn are made up of four nucleotides containing the bases adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine. (In layman's terms: The hipbone's connected to the thighbone, the thighbone's connected to the knee-bone, etc.) Also, when you spell, you begin with A, B, C; when you sing, you begin with do, re, mi.

In the musical-genetic world of Dr. Susumu Ohno, however, do is not a deer, a female deer. Neither, for that matter, is re a drop of golden sun. Do is cytosine, re and mi are adenine ("Sweeeet Adenine!"), fa and sol are guanine, la and ti are thymine, which will bring us back to do (cytosine again). Simple, isn't it?

Having assigned notes to each base, Dr. Ohno, a geneticist at the Beckman Research Institute of the City of Hope in Duarte, Calif., found that the genes could be translated into music. For instance, his "Calcium Pump of Rabbit Muscle" is a catchy little number with the mathematical precision of a Bach fugue. "The next one is 'Alpha-A Crystallin in Chicken Lens,' " says Ohno, working his way through his greatest hits. And who can forget that perennial crowd pleaser "Mouse RNA Polymerase II"?

The more evolved the organism, the more complicated the music. For instance, the one-cell protozoan composition translates into a simple four-note repetition; the more complex slime mold produces a two-step, and so on up the ladder.

Ohno, 60, has notated 15 songs in the last two years. He takes some liberties with time signature, key and the duration of each note. The melodic compositions are fleshed out with harmonies by his wife, Midori, and are then performed by professional musicians.

Ohno says that the genes-to-music translation works in reverse too. When he transcribed a Chopin piece into chemical notation, sections of the formula were that of a human cancer gene. So far, Ohno has restricted himself to transcribing organically based music—and he works only in the classical idiom. Since inorganic substances such as lead and mercury have no DNA, Ohno isn't interested in them; and besides, heavy metal just isn't his thing.

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