Scientists are developing a tiny ear that, when placed on a microscope slide, will allow researchers to hear micro-organisms going about their business, the BBC reports. According to the article, researchers could “listen to how a drug disrupts micro-organisms in the same way as a mechanic might listen to a car’s engine to find a fault."

The researchers hope their new “ear” will become standard lab equipment, and the group has received backing from the U.K.’s National Institute of Medical Research and the universities of Oxford and Glasgow.

According to the article, existing technology uses lasers to measure tiny movements, a process researchers call optical tweezers. When researchers place a bead in the beam of a laser’s light, they can measure the movement as the laser bounces the bead around. The article quotes lead researcher Jon Cooper from the University of Glasgow, saying, “We are now using the sensitivity afforded by the optical tweezer as a very sensitive microphone.” His team arranges several beads in a ring to “surround and ‘listen to’ an object” as it wobbles in fluid.

The researchers have already managed to control the beads and listen to the vibrations using a device similar to a “Victorian ear trumpet” to listen to Brownian motion, the movement of atoms in fluid.

Physicist Richard Berry of Oxford plans to affix the ears to the tails of bacterium (called flagella) to see how they behave, according to the article. His team must create or genetically alter the bacterium to allow the addition of a monitoring device on the flagella, which means the created organism might not behave the way naturally occurring organisms would. The new ear would allow them to use “natural organisms” to learn how they react with new medications. The article references a blood parasite currently wreaking havoc in sub-Saharan Africa, saying that scientists could help to stifle this killer. The BBC says, “by listening to [the bacterium’s] motor, it may be possible to better understand how it works and ultimately investigate the action of new medicines that might stop its motor.”

Micro-ears may allow scientists to eavesdrop on molecules
Researchers develop a type of Victorian ear trumpet capable of listening at the molecular level.