A tool that converts a DNA sequence into an audio stream could help highlight mutations. The process is called sonification and generally involves treating DNA sequences as random patterns to create nice-sounding music. Molecular biologist Dr Mark Temple discovered that by using actual musical notes something useful could be revealed.

A DNA sequence is a long, continuous chain made up of only four chemical bases: adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine (referred to as A, T, G and C). They repeat in various defined patterns to make up a gene. Many genes are identical in sequence within a species; that is, from person to person, or from virus to virus. Sometimes a mutation occurs when one of the chemical bases in the sequence differs from the usual pattern. This mutation could indicate an error that could lead to problems for the person or microorganism involved.

Using his online audio tool, Dr Temple discovered that any changes in a repetitive DNA sequence due to mutation gave rise to a very distinctive change in sound. The full results were recently published in the journal BMC Bioinformatics.1

“Normally, scientists rely heavily on visual inspection of DNA sequences to unlock their secrets. Sonification alone is not intended to replace visual inspection but rather complement it, in the same way that colour may highlight the properties of a DNA sequence”, said Dr Temple.

Indeed, sonification is not a new concept. Alan Turing’s Manchester computer (built in 1948) had a built-in loudspeaker (referred to as a hooter) that could generate taps, clicks and thumps throughout the progress of programmed routines. As such, some indication of what was happening could be provided by the rhythm of the clicks heard. This early example of computerised sonification shows how the real-time progress of a complex routine can be tracked over an extended period of time.

There is strong interest in understanding how DNA sequences determine our physical form and how DNA mutations affect our health. Listening to audio derived from DNA may help scientists further unlock the mysteries of cell biology.

  1. Temple M. BMC Bioinformatics 2017;18:221
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