ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Here's something you don't hear every day.
(Soundbite of beetle)
SIEGEL: That is the inside of a beetle. It was made using atomic force microscopy. A team at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York made a breakthrough in recording those hard-to-get sounds emanating from inside living insects like flies, mosquitoes, ladybugs. And these audio snapshots will give scientists new information about what is going on with those bugs.
To explain how this was done is physics professor Igor Sokolov. Welcome to the program.
Professor IGOR SOKOLOV (Physics, Clarkson University): Hello.
SIEGEL: And tell us, roughly, how did you get that sound from the inside of the beetle?
Prof. SOKOLOV: Well, atomic force microscopy can be visualized like a finger. You can touch surface and feel its vibrations.
SIEGEL: Which is what you did. Now, where is the breakthrough here? What is it you are able to do that is new?
Prof. SOKOLOV: Well, we recorded signals which are a thousand times more accurate than were people were able to do before. Secondly, we were able to record amplitudes of vibrations down to 1/100th of atomic size.
SIEGEL: What actually is oscillating? What is it that's vibrating that you're recording?
Prof. SOKOLOV: Yeah, that's a very good question. What beetles are doing when they're breathing, they're moving a lot of biological armor. And that can create noise. So that's what we try to avoid. We did a controlled experiment. We took a dead beetle, you push its belly and with the same amplitude, the same size like it would be natural breathing.
SIEGEL: You performed nano artificial respiration on a dead beetle?
Prof. SOKOLOV: Yes. And we did see some noise coming from that part. We filtered the signal and left only vibration parts. So what exactly we hear we do not know at this moment.
SIEGEL: But it's the essence of being alive if you're a beetle, is what that sound is.
Prof. SOKOLOV: Yes.
SIEGEL: It's the sound of the beetle minus the sound of a dead beetle gives you the sound of life, if you're a beetle.
Prof. SOKOLOV: Precisely.
SIEGEL: Now, I want people to hear another sound that you recorded using atomic force microscopy. This is what a mosquito sounded like.
(Soundbite of mosquito)
SIEGEL: They even sound annoying at a microscopic level, the mosquitoes. Same methodology to make that recording as with the beetle?
Prof. SOKOLOV: Yeah. That's pretty much like methodology was the same for all insects.
SIEGEL: Now, Professor Sokolov, do you think this is as small as you can get or are there still smaller organisms that you think you could record their vibrations using nano technology and in this case, atomic force microscopy?
Prof. SOKOLOV: What we plan to do is kind of an opposite. We plan to go to large organisms, to humans. And that's where were really thinking about some possibly biomedical obligations.
SIEGEL: You mean the sound of a particular cell as opposed to the sound of another cell? Is that what you're looking at or what?
Prof. SOKOLOV: Humans I think, we are thinking about the entire organism.
SIEGEL: The entire organism.
Prof. SOKOLOV: Yes. Essentially it would be a sort of a nano version of what doctors use every day. Like, I guess it's called a stethoscope. And here we can get signals which are much more sensitive.
SIEGEL: But you can possibly imagine a day off in the future when some doctor might say, something sounds wrong to me and he's referring to oscillations of tissue?
Prof. SOKOLOV: Absolutely. Absolutely. And even a little bit better because we are speaking about objective recording and it can be analyzed through special software algorithms. So we are speaking about excluding possible human error in diagnosis.
SIEGEL: So instead we'll be told by the physician's assistant, our center in Bangalore sees a problem with your vibrations there in the...
Prof. SOKOLOV: Yeah. Or you can even think about going to the drugstore and simply pushing your finger against some device and it tells you, like, which prescription or which kind of drugs you might need.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIEGEL: Okay. Well, thanks for talking with us both about the future possibilities and what you've done in the present.
Prof. SOKOLOV: Thank you for your interest.
SIEGEL: That's Igor Sokolov, professor of physics at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York.