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No. 46: Jul-Aug 1986

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The Music Of The Genes

"S. Ohno has cracked a new genetic code. The 58-year-old geneticist doesn't have the whole thing worked out yet, but when he sets the genes to music -- or music to genes -- some strange and wonderful things occur. To wit: "The SARC oncogene, a malignant gene first discovered in chickens, causes cancer in humans as well. When Ohno translated the gene into music, it sounded very much like Chopin's Funeral March.

"An enzyme called phosphoglycerate kinase, which breaks down glucose, or sugar, in the body revealed itself to Ohno as a lullaby."

Seeing this item is from a newspaper, it was nearly consigned to the wastebasket. But wait a moment, Susumo Ohno is a Distinguished Scientist at the Beckman Research Institute of the City of Hope National Medical Center, Duarte, CA. Could there be something to it?

Reading further; we find that Ohno believes that the structure of music seems to parallel that of the genes. He translates genes into music by assigning notes according to molecular weights. His ultimate goal is the discovery of some basic pattern (melody?) that governs all life.

(Anonymous; "Scientist Tunes in to Gene Compositions," San Jose Mercury News, p. E1, May 13, 1986. Cr. P. Bartindale.)

Comment. Not too long ago the motions of the planets were supposed to conform to an esthetically pleasing Music of the Spheres. Ohno, it seems, has found a way to express the Music of the Genes. Are simple organisms just short tunes and humans full-fledged operas? Are some refrains repeated in different organisms? All this is not entirely frivilous because a fundamental tenet of science expects nature to be describable in terms of a few laws that are not only simple but esthetically pleasing as well.

From Science Frontiers #46, JUL-AUG 1986. 1986-2000 William R. Corliss