DNA sequences can be converted to digital music

Quelle: MusicTherapy-List 31. Maerz 2002

Sequencing DNA, whether of hamster or human, is a big project. Biotechnology companies spend enormous sums and tap the creativity of countless scientists to determine the exact order of DNA nucleotides in genes, in the hope that the knowledge will lead to new drugs to
fight disease.

New drugs can lead, in turn, to large profits, so perhaps it is not surprising that biotechnology companies also spend enormous sums – and tap the creativity of countless lawyers – to figure out how to protect this knowledge. One major avenue for doing so has been through the United States Patent Office, which has issued patents on some DNA sequences (much to the dismay of many scientists and others who argue that a gene is not a widget, and that the code of life should be an open book).

But even those who welcome patents know they only go so far. For one thing, they expire in less than two decades. For another, the patent office has tightened its rules in recent years and has declared that some kinds of DNA are not patentable. What’s a biotech company to do?

Take a page from Tin Pan Alley, perhaps. An executive with one Silicon Valley company is now suggesting that DNA sequences be converted to digital music, arguing that they might then be protected under copyright law. Hey, it worked for Lennon and McCartney. Why not for DNA?

„It’s really sort of a very small piece of a much larger puzzle,“ said Willem Stemmer, vice president for research and development at Maxygen, a biotechnology company in Redwood City, Calif., who floated the idea. „Patents are important. But copyright could be equally or more important.“

The technology to convert the coding of a strand of DNA – essentially a string of letters, a different letter for´each of the four nucleotides – into music is already available. Free or inexpensive programs like Bio2Midi and ProteinMusic take such character strings and come up with musical compositions.

The result may be more Mantovani than Mozart, but that’s not Dr. Stemmer’s concern. The idea is that a DNA sequence, if encoded as music, might be copyrightable as a work of art. A researcher wanting to use that sequence could obtain it as a music file and decode it after purchasing a proprietary back-translation program.

Such a system would benefit the biotechnology companies, because their work would be protected – for up to 100 years in some cases. But Dr. Stemmer argued that it would also aid other researchers by making more DNA sequences available. With the current uncertainty about patents, some companies have refused to reveal sequences they have deciphered out of fear that they will lose the rights to them.

Dr. Stemmer said that intellectual property lawyers and other genomics companies are studying various ideas for protecting ownership of DNA sequences, although a spokeswoman for Maxygen said that Dr. Stemmer’s digital music proposal was intended only to stimulate discussion in the scientific community and was not part of any company strategy. Still, Dr. Stemmer noted that warfare among genomics companies could happen. „When it does break out,“ he said, „things will polarize very quickly.“

John Dunn, who wrote the Bio2Midi program four years ago (and who has written other molecules-to-music programs available through his company, Algorithmic Arts, in Fort Worth, Tex.), said he was inspired to create this kind of software after working with DNA researchers and finding that genetic data has some qualities, like thematic variation, that are similar to music.

„Science and art are wonderful together,“ Mr. Dunn said, adding that he found the idea of extending copyright protection in this way unethical.
„I think it’s dishonest and bad to take laws intended to let artists make a living with their art,“ he said, „and to subvert them to do what they might not have been able to do in a legal way.“

THE idea raises some other questions as well. Dr. Stemmer has noted that Napster and other online music-sharing services showed that digital music could be subject to copyright laws. Maybe so, but only after several years of chaos, when most of America’s college students, it seemed, freely downloaded every rock and roll song ever recorded without paying a cent in royalties. And the demise of Napster, after all, only gave rise to slicker, more clandestine programs that allow the downloading to continue.

Would digitized DNA music face the same problem? Would researchers be downloading and decoding popular sequences without paying for them, or trading genes like fans of the Grateful Dead trade concert recordings? Perhaps, though Dr. Stemmer said he was not worried about copyright violations by the occasional academic. It’s the other large biotech companies he cares about, and it would be in their interest to play by the rules, he said. No bootleg sequences – the genomic equivalent of „The Basement Tapes“ – for them.

Just legitimate copies, obtained in a way that perhaps even adds new meaning to an old joke:
Researcher No. 1: Do you know the nucleotide sequence for the gene that encodes production of green fluorescent protein in Pacific jellyfish?
Researcher No. 2: No, but hum a few bars and I’ll fake it.