The Rhythmic Sound of Living Cells

What does the sound of living cells sound like? This article explores the discovery of cellular sounds through the science nano-biotechnology and how it is being utilized in art.

What does the sound of living cells sound like?

Living cells create sound as a natural aspect of their metabolic process and each type of cell has a unique ‘song’ that changes when the cell is stressed.

In 2002, Professor James Gimzewski and Andrew Pelling at the UCLA Department of Chemistry first made the discovery that yeast cells oscillate at the nanoscale. Amplifying this oscillation results in a sound that lies within the human audible range.

An Atomic Force Microscope (AFM) is employed to ‘listen’ to the sounds of cells. Unlike microscopes that use optical imaging, the AFM ‘touches’ a cell with its small tip, comparable to a record needle ‘feeling’ the bumps in a groove on a record. With this interface, the AFM ‘feels’ oscillations taking place at the membrane of a cell. These electrical signals can then be amplified and distributed by speakers.

Termed ‘sonocytology’, this new science may hold great potential for medical diagnosis and therapy in the future.

In this short video the sound of a healthy yeast cell has been made visible on the CymaScope instrument, revealing complex geometrical features.


Sophia Roosth: Sonocytology and Cellular Sounds – Techniques of the Listener

Sophia Roosth’s research focuses on the twentieth and twenty-first century life sciences. Her first book manuscript examines how the life sciences are changing at a moment when researchers build new biological systems in order to investigate how biology works. In this work, Roosth asks what happens to “life” as a conceptual category when experimentation and fabrication converge.


The Dark Side of the Cell

The Dark Side of the Cell is an audio-visual event exploring the recent discoveries in cellular sounds.

The project is the collaborative effort of the media artist Anne Niemetz, and the nano-scientist Andrew Pelling, who teamed up to combine their research and interests in nano-biotechnology, sound and installation design.

The Dark Side of the Cell is the first composition ever to utilize cell sonics. The staging of the ‘musical cells’ takes place in a darkened, acoustically immersive space, enhanced with a number of sculptural objects, onto which microscopic imagery of the sonic cells and their cellular sonograms are projected.

The Dark Side of the Cell I 2004

The Dark Side of the Cell Premiere in the nano space at LACMA 2004.
Audio-visual installation by Anne Niemetz and Andrew Pelling.

The Dark Side of the Cell II 2006

The Dark Side Of The Cell II at ‘informARTics’ 12 – 21 May 2006, ZKM + HfG Karlsruhe
Audio-visual installation by Anne Niemetz and Andrew Pelling.


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