A Los Angeles scientist says living cells may make distinct sounds, which might someday help doctors “hear” diseases.

Kids, lawn mowers, planes, trains, automobiles—just about everything makes noise. And if two California scientists are right, so, too, do living cells. In recent experiments using the frontier science of nanotechnology, the researchers have found evidence that yeast cells give off one kind of squeal while mammalian cells may give off another. The research, though still preliminary, is potentially “revolutionary,” as one scientist puts it, and a possible, admittedly far-off medical application, is already being pursued: someday, the thinking goes, listening to the sounds your cells make might tell a doctor, before symptoms occur, whether you’re healthy or about to be ill.

The founder of the study of cell sounds, or “sonocytology,” as he calls it, is Jim Gimzewski, a 52-year-old UCLA chemist who has contributed to an art museum’s exhibit on molecular structure. The cell sounds idea came to him in 2001 after a medical researcher told him that when living heart cells are placed in a petri dish with appropriate nutrients, the cells will continue to pulsate. Gimzewski began wondering if all cells might beat, and if so, would such tiny vibrations produce a detectable sound. After all, he reasoned, sound is merely the result of a force pushing on molecules, creating a pressure wave that spreads and registers when it strikes the eardrum. He also reasoned that although a noise generated by a cell would not be audible, it might be detected by an especially sensitive instrument.

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