"What Does DNA Sound Like?"


Richard Harris and Alex Chadwick explore their virtual cell

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This, in essence, was the question NPR Senior Science Editor Anne Gudenkauf asked several months ago during a meeting about NPR's coverage of the Human Genome Project. "What's the best way" she asked, "to explain to our audience -- in the language of radio -- how genes work, and why decoding them even matters?" A good question. To talk about genes in the "language of radio" means to use -- fully and imaginatively -- the two major tools of a radio journalist: words and sounds. Finding the words would be easy. But where would we find the sounds? Do chromosomes make noise, assuming you can even get close enough to hear them? What does DNA sound like?

Listen as NPR's Alex Chadwick and Richard Harris attempt to answer the question.

After some debate, we decided genes could "speak" on the radio only if they were large enough to be heard. We agreed that one way to "enlarge" them was to literally build a giant, human "cell" that could be fully explored by NPR Science correspondent Richard Harris and NPR world traveler, Alex Chadwick. With the expert guidance of molecular biologist Susan Myers, we converted NPR's Studio 3A into a "cell" in the upper digestive tract, complete with hanging ornaments, dozens of inflatable objects, and 46 brightly colored skeins of yarn to represent chromosomes. An NPR audio technician recorded Chadwick and Harris as they made their way, by flashlight, through the darkened studio-cell. Then came the fun part: finding the sounds to add to the words.

Since we were trying to portray a living system, I made an inventory of NPR's already-recorded sounds of living things, including ambience collected on several of Alex Chadwick's (actual) expeditions around the world. As a result, many of the effects in Chadwick and Harris' imaginary cell expedition are digitally altered sounds of whales, bees, birds, and people.

Human voices turned out to be especially useful for producing a wide variety of sounds, including of course, the DNA code itself. (What does DNA sound like? Perhaps it sounds like audio button four Morning Edition staffers murmering the nucloetides "G-A-T-C" over and over again into a microphone, with digital processing added to make it sound a little less human, a little more cellular.

On another occassion, I convinced an even larger group of people to record a full repertoire of silly mouth sounds -- the kind that children usually get scolded for making in grade school. With some digital nips and tucks (and some muffled guffaws edited out), these sounds provided the cell background ambience, and the rain-like popping noises at the end of the piece, as the cell vessicle fills up with lactase. I also ventured into audio button the studio myself to see what kinds of "traveling" sounds I could produce with a drinking straw; my ill-mannered slurps were digitally processed to produce the sounds of enzymes and messenger RNA migrating from one part of the cell to another.

In many respects, putting a cell on the radio is like trying to make a movie out of a famous novel; listeners, particularly biologists, will surely have their own opinions of what DNA, a ribosome or a nucleus should sound like. But at the very least, I hope this project has revealed some of the mystery in genes, and a trace of the music in DNA.

- Neva Grant

Reporters: Richard Harris and Alex Chadwick
Producer: Neva Grant, (Senior Producer, Morning Edition)
Audio Technicians: Peter Elena (recording) , Andy Rosenberg (mixing), Linda Mack (post-production)
Inspiration: Anne Gudenkauf (Senior Editor, NPR Science Desk)
Cell Biology Consultant: Dr. Susan Myers

Related Links:
  • The Human Genome Project
  • The National Human Genome Research Institute
  • Human Genome Research Central
  • Celera

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