New & Noteworthy

Autophagy’s (Atg)9th Symphony

January 17, 2013

(Please click the musical note and listen to the music while reading.) The music you’re listening to starts off with a marimba. Then a flute joins in and as the marimba fades, in comes a shamisen. The piece progresses similarly with a harp, and then ends with the reappearance of the marimba. A nice, jaunty little piece of music.


The new breed of science teachers.

This song is actually a tool for learning about autophagy in the yeast S. cerevisiae. Autophagy is a way to break down damaged or no longer useful proteins and recycle their components for later use. It is a very important pathway in keeping starving yeast alive. Many of the proteins involved in autophagy are highly conserved, and autophagy defects are implicated in several kinds of human disease.

As described in a recent paper, Takahashi and coworkers converted the sequences of four proteins involved in a step in autophagy – Atg9, Sso1, Sec9, and Sec22 – into pieces of music using UCLA’s Gene2Music program. Each protein was then assigned a musical instrument. Atg9 was played with the marimba, Sso1 with the flute, Sec9 with the shamisen, and Sec22 with the harp. The orchestrated piece of music reflects how each protein interacts with the others in the autophagy pathway.

Atg9 is a transmembrane protein that is key to making the vesicles that carry the damaged or unused proteins to the lysosome for destruction. But it, like the marimba, is not enough. Atg9 is recruited into service by at least three other proteins, Sso1, Sec9, and Sec22. These appear in succession in the musical piece as a flute, shamisen, and harp. Just like all four are needed for the orchestral piece, all four are also needed for successful autophagy.

Now listen to the music again. With this background, did you find the piece more illuminating? If you didn’t, it may simply be because it doesn’t fit your learning style, or match the type of intelligence that is your strength. Some people may respond to music better than they do to pictures of pathways or memorizing the steps involved. It may be that these people’s understanding of complicated pathways is enhanced with a musical component.

There will need to be more research on musical representation of complex pathways to see if they actually help students and even the public better understand science. If they do, I am looking forward to hearing the Krebs Cycle put to music. Or the assembly of the RNA polymerase II preinitiation complex. Which pathways do you want put to music?

by D. Barry Starr, Ph.D., Director of Outreach Activities, Stanford Genetics