Updated: Aug 22, 2018
By Dan Brooks
In recent years the concept of genetic code has garnered major attention in the media. Awareness of how an individual’s genome influences disease development and drug administration is profound, but may be neglecting important areas of research. As one learns more advanced concepts in biology and genetics it becomes increasingly evident that the sequence of your DNA is not the only factor influencing who and what you are. One of the additional factors influencing your genes is a process called methylation.
Methylation is a chemical modification of specific areas in a DNA sequence known as CpG dinucleotides. CpG is shorthand for referring to two nucleotides, cytosine and guanine, when they are adjacent to each other on a linear segment of DNA. The modification of these locations is generally used to turn genes off or limit their transcription. Down regulation has nothing to do with the raw sequence of DNA other than how this genetic information is exposed for transcription. This means two people can have the same genetic sequence but different phenotypes based on variations in the methylation profile of their genome.
The study of the methylation profile of an entire genome is called methylomics. This field involves the analysis of variations in methylation patterns based on specific diseases and environments. Much of the research in this field is still in its nascent stages, but epigenetics, the study of gene expression modifications that do not change the underlying DNA sequence, is quickly becoming a major factor in genetic analysis. Unfortunately the concept of methylation and epigenetics missed the wave of popularity DNA sequencing experienced in the media, and the former fail to possess the widespread public awareness that DNA does.
Thankfully, there are multitudes of researchers pioneering new ways to understand these inherently abstract concepts and tie them to their own lives. Recently, David Brocks, a researcher at the German Cancer Research Center published his process of creating musical renditions of methylation profiles. His intention is to make methylation data more accessible and relevant to the average person, as well as pioneer a new way to analyze data for researchers in the field.
His method is complex but was designed to create musical pieces that directly reflected the underlying methylomics. He began by gathering methylation data from a large public database, NCBI GEO, and screening it for specific values to match his production plan. This screening excluded any data points without methylation values and grouped the data into methylated and unmethylated states. These state values were then mapped into strings of seven values, for seven consecutive methylation sites, and matched with a corresponding tone universe consisting of 128 notes. This process created audibly pleasing and sufficiently complex musical pieces that were neither monotonous or over-bearing, as well as additional analysis of the audible interpretation of methylation profiles.
Brocks postulates this novel approach to methylation profile interpretation could gather more support for the field while simultaneously creating a new technique for researchers to analyze complex patterns and variations in methylation profiles. The overall deficiency of public support warrants further involvement by the scientific community to raise awareness of methylomics and help guide the public to a more robust understanding of the fundamental factors contributing to our identity. However, Brocks’s research breaks ground with a novel, melodious way to bring the genome closer to the listener.
Brocks, D. (2015). Musical patterns for comparative epigenomics. Clinical
epigenetics, 7(1), 94.