for National Geographic News
With the aid of a tiny device that works like the needle on the arm of a record player, a scientist has pumped up the sounds made by tiny proteins zipping around inside a yeast cell.
The discovery is driving the development of a new tool that may allow doctors to detect diseases like cancer by listening to the sounds of their patients' bodies, said James Gimzewski, a biochemistry professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
"We already do that with the heart, which is a bunch of cells Could we do it on the liver, the kidney, the spleen? Is there something going on there? I'm just fascinated by the whole idea," he said.
Gimzewski discovered cell sounds using a device called an atomic force microscope. But he says the name is a misnomer.
"It's not a microscope that you look through a lens to see something [I]t's kind of a paradigm shift in a way, from looking at things to a form of feeling them," he said.
The device has a very sharp tip that is attached to a spring, like the needle on a record player.
When Gimzewski and his colleagues rested the needle on a yeast cell, they discovered the cell wall moved up and down at an audible frequency. When they fed the movement through a computer loudspeaker, they could hear it.
"It was surprising, because nobody had found [that] before," Gimzewski said.
His research team believes the sounds are produced by tiny "protein motors," proteins that can move nutrients and other materials around a cell by vibrating.
As the motors move, they cause the cell walls to shake.
Gimzewski and his colleagues performed several experiments to determine whether cell noise was the result of protein motors or other, random movements outside the cell.
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