Sex chromosomes to oratorio: Scientist says it’s time to stop singing about Adam and Eve

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Evolutionary geneticist Jenny Graves has dedicated her life to pioneering scientific breakthroughs in the fascinating world of sex chromosomes, but for 20 years, another creative pursuit was bubbling away in her head.

The distinguished professor at La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science said she came up with a “preposterous idea” to write a libretto – the text of an opera – for the first time, trying her hand at an updated take on the Austrian composer Joseph Haydn’s 1798 masterpiece, The Creation.

Acclaimed scientist Jenny Graves has written an oratorio called Origins of the Universe, of Life, of Species, of Humanity.Credit: Justin McManus

“I thought it would take months and I would be agonising over every word,” said Graves, who won the coveted Prime Minister’s Prize for Science in 2017. “But it just came pouring out of me, in verse too.”

Graves, who has been a chorister for 50 years had performed Haydn’s Creation countless times, but each time she wondered: “Why are we still singing about Adam and Eve when there’s so much gorgeous science out there in the world that explains our origins?”

“I kept thinking somebody ought to update this,” she said.

Graves teamed up with fellow chorister-poet and friend Leigh Hay, and together they finished an oratorio – Origins of the Universe, of Life, of Species, of Humanity.

It tells the creation story through science, delving into our origins from the big bang theory to the rise of the third chimpanzee. Australian composer Nick Buc was commissioned to write the music.

Graves’ work has transformed our understanding of how sex chromosomes work and led to the realisation that the human male Y chromosome may be on a path to extinction and could “self-destruct” in a few million years.

For decades, she has examined what happens in human cells and compared it to that of kangaroos, platypuses, Tasmanian devils and bearded dragons, believing that understanding the genetic history of Australia’s wildlife was crucial to the future of human evolution.

This research formed the heart of her choral work.

Graves with bearded dragons – named Malcolm and Bill – in 2017.Credit: Andrew Meares

“I want people to understand just how beautiful science can be,” the 81-year-old Melburnian said. “It will take us from the warm little pond where life began through the discovery of DNA structure.”

The final part of the oratorio touches on the perils of climate change and the destruction of the environment.

“I feel very deeply that the world is in terrible shape and humans are not doing much to keep our world pristine, so we sing about extinction and the rise and fall of humanity,” Graves said. “The message is that the time is now to really support science.”

Graves said many scientists were musical and creative. She has worked in labs alongside poets, bassists, violinists, opera singers and organ players for 50 years and always dreamt of performing in a “lab orchestra”.

She even met her husband, molecular biologist-turned-engineer John Graves, at Berkeley University in California the 1970s while the pair were both performing in Nucleoside Story – an academic take on West Side Story about warring two university science departments.

Graves and her future husband played star-crossed lovers.

“The show got me into singing which I have absolutely loved,” Graves said, adding that Phil Carl –the biochemist who created Nucleoside Story – also wrote a song for their 50th wedding anniversary.

The Heidelberg Choral Society rehearsing Origins of the Universe.Credit: Justin McManus

Grave’s oratorio will premiere at Melbourne Recital Centre on July 18 during the International Congress of Genetics in Melbourne next month.

The performance will be led by the 100-voice Heidelberg Choral Society with a visual background by biomedical animator Drew Berry and a full orchestra.

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