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Researchers Listen to Yeast Cells

A team of scientists has found a way to listen in on the strange sounds produced by a single cell. The recordings, reported in the journal Science, were made with yeast cells by using a small probe thousands of times thinner than a hair. NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.

UCLA scientist James Gimzewski positioned a sensitive instrument called an atomic force microscope over a cell to try to detect its motion. To his surprise, the microscope picked up regular vibrations. His team then looked for a program that would could convert the data into a sound file. Gimzewski thinks what they hear is the sound of tiny molecular motors inside the cell, moving things around. The researcher likened it to sitting outside a living factory, and listening to the wall. When they changed the temperature, the sound would speed up or slow down, as if the cells were running faster or slower.

Researchers might one day be able to detect the early stages of diseases like cancer by listening to human cells, Gimzewski says. That seems like a long shot, but he points out there is a precedent. During the Industrial Revolution, mechanics found they could often tell what was wrong with a machine just by listening.

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David Kestenbaum is a correspondent for NPR, covering science, energy issues and, most recently, the global economy for NPR's multimedia project Planet Money. David has been a science correspondent for NPR since 1999. He came to journalism the usual way — by getting a Ph.D. in physics first.