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Eye colour DNA matched to music in Deirdre Gribbin’s new composition for strings

Mon 9 Apr 2018

New work by Trinity Laban professor of composition Deirdre Gribbin translates visual data from the DNA print-outs of sequenced genomes, transforming information on individuals’ eye colours into music.

Performed by the Benyounes Quartet, GenoME will receive its premiere at University College London (UCL) on Thursday 12 April at the launch of a new app, also called GenoME. Dr Gribbin’s music is incorporated into the app, which explores variations in genetic code.

GenoME for strings is based on the most common type of genetic variation (“single nucleotide polymorphisms”, or SNPs for short) found in the DNA of four of the volunteers whose genomic profile features in the app.

To create the music, Dr Gribbin isolated the part of the pattern which determines eye colour. She represented the colour differences in music by using rhythmic and pitch variation: cell development is represented through sudden harmonic or rhythmic changes, and through dynamic contrast, while musical repetition is used to illustrate genetic repetition. Essentially, the music for the four volunteers begins with audible areas of shared common traits. As the genes modify in each individual, so too does the music.

In this way, GenoMe goes beyond the basic concepts of genetics, examining and illustrating through music the traits of specific people’s individuality and similarities.

The music serves to illustrate factual and visual data in the app, but also makes the app more accessible to a wider audience, including those who are non or partially sighted, enabling them to ‘hear’ and understand genetic variation through musical difference.

“A central aim of my work as a composer is to make the science more meaningful to a wider audience,” explains Dr Gribbin. “Discussion about developments in DNA is hugely topical. We constantly want to know about what makes up our genetic profile. For the non-scientist trying to understand what implication this has for our future is often difficult to fathom… debate about genetics has particular relevance for me. In 2006 my son was born with Trisomy 21: Down Syndrome.

“In 2012 I was a Leverhulme funded composer in Residence at the MRC Laboratory for Molecular Biology in Cambridge. Working with geneticist Dr Sarah Teichmann and her team I set about interpreting results from the most up-to-date findings in a fresh, stimulating and provocative way through my music. My aim was to create something beautiful from the DNA print outs and I wrote my first string quartet, Hearing Your Genes Evolve.”

UCL has launched their GenoME app through the Personal Genome Project UK, which was founded in 2013 to bring genomic, environmental and human trait data donated by volunteers into a publicly accessible database, while involving its participants in citizen science.

Both GenoMe and Hearing Your Genes Evolve will be performed at UCL (Jeremy Bentham Room, South Cloisters) on Thursday 12 April. Tickets are free and available through Eventbrite.