Listening to the "voice" of proteins


When Reuven Gordon describes the biomedical engineering technique of listening to, and recording, the “voice” of proteins, it sounds a lot like a modern take on Horton Hears a Who, Dr. Seuss’s children’s story of an elephant who hears a voice calling from a microscopic dust speck.

“Everything small has resonances. Everything has a voice,” he says of the protein molecules measuring a single nanometer in size, the building blocks of life that are a million times smaller than an ant and emit sound at a frequency a million times higher than the human ear can hear.

Gordon calls the technique Extraordinary Acoustic Raman spectroscopy (EAR) and he thinks this way of examining proteins is about to change the pace of drug discovery for diseases from cystic fibrosis to cancer. It’s described in a new study published this week in Nature Photonics.

“It’s just that nobody before has been able to hear them. And because we’ve invented this new way to listen-in at this frequency range, we’re opening the way for scientists to discover all kinds of new things,” he says.

Gordon's group has discovered that when the protein is trapped with two lasers it will vibrate at a particular frequency, which can be measured and the unique acoustic vibration “fingerprinted.”

“When you listen to a voice,” Gordon explains, “you can identify the person you’re talking to by the tone of their voice. In the same way, the tones that proteins emit can tell you what you’re looking at. And just as a person might sound different when they’re sick, the mutant form of a protein will sound different from the healthy one.”

Once these two forms are identified—the healthy and the mutant—the lengthy work begins: adding drug combinations to the mutant form of the protein and listening for the acoustic vibration to change back to the sound of a healthy “voice.” Gordon has already partnered with a drug company that sees potential of this nano-tech tool to accelerate new drug discoveries.

Listen to the sound of an excited protein from SoundCloud:

View an animated gif on YouTube:

(Video, gif or wav files available to media on request.)

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Media contacts

>Dr. Reuven Gordon, (Electrical and Computer Engineering) at 250-472 5179 or

Suzanne Ahearne (University Communications + Marketing) at 250-721-6139 or

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Keywords: biomedical engineering, research

People: Reuven Gordon

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