4.27.2009

Indulge me for a bit

Last Friday I volunteered to talk about science at a high school, which turned out to be a visual and performing arts high school. I was a bit jealous of these kids -- their high school seems like camp with homework! When I got there at lunchtime there were kids playing around on keyboards, sitting next to African drums with their bag lunches, and breaking out into snippets of song. Not quite like High School Musical (yes, I've seen #'s 1 and 3, but could get through only part of 2), but probably as close as real life gets.

Anyway, while talking to these kids about DNA I used a metaphor that I'm pretty (dorkily) proud of. 80% of the class were musicians. I told them that DNA is like the sheet music, or score, of a symphony. If you've ever seen the sheet music for a symphony, it can be as big as a doctoral thesis-length book. Likewise, the human genome, or complete set of DNA, is quite extensive. Are you following? So, each individual note in the score is like an individual base pair of DNA (you know, those letters A, T, C, or G). The order of the notes is important for the melody of the sheet music, while the order of the DNA base pairs is important to code for the genes of the genome. One mis-placed or lost note or notation in the sheet music can lead to an incorrect note, or perhaps a note that is cut short instead of held. Likewise, one mis-placed or lost DNA base pair can lead to an incorrect/mutated gene or perhaps silence the gene completely.

Still following? Each musician in the symphony can get a copy of the entire score, but each musician plays only their designated segment of the score, specialized for their respective instruments. Likewise, each cell in the body has an entire copy of the genome, but each cell expresses and uses only certain genes, specialized for the cell-types (ie. the gene for eye color is expressed only in the eye). Even more specifically, each musician plays their designated segments at certain times as directed by the conductor (and by the order of the notes). Gene expression can be turned on and off at certain times as directed by a variety of factors.

If the music notation in the sheet music is the genotype, or genetic code of an organism, then the sound of the music that is produced is the phenotype, or the physical outcome of gene expression (ie. blue eyes, blond hair, freckles, long toes, etc.). Humans share 99.9% of their genetic material, but that 0.1% of variation is sufficient to make us different at the genetic and physical levels (unless you have a twin. And we won't even get into nature vs. nurture today!). Along these lines, if two different sets of musicians play music from the exact same score, then there will be variation depending on how the musicians and the conductor interpret it.

OK, that is all I have for now, but I'm sure that there are more similarities out there. Music and science are so intertwined, and not just metaphorically! Here is an interesting article about "protein songs," for example.

6 comments:

Ashley said...

Interesting. I don't know anything more about biology than a high school student and it made sense to me! I am very intrigued by this high school musical-like school.

I love the picture. Thanks for playing along.

Matt said...

I dont know about sheet music or DNA and I understood your metaphor. Not bad.

I hated Biology in college. I had this prof who had a real thick african accent so it was hard to understand what he was ranting about.

But he made nucleic my favorite word!

Sophia said...

I'm glad you guys get it! Haha and nucleic IS a pretty good word.

Amandaaa said...

your science ways are fun to hear
about. i was never a science
student, but the way you just
explained this was interesting.
i'm sure the students appreciated it!
you're so cute!

yayyy for the picture game. i'm always one for games.

ps-give high school musical 2 another try. there are some GREAT musical numbers. haaa...it's true!

Stan said...

Cool story!

idhappens said...

Wow. I never understood DNA before (science is one of those things I feel is often over my head) but I actually get it now. What a great explanation!