Scientists capture the ‘sound’ of bacteria in antibiotic breakthrough

The soft drumbeat of living bacteria has been recorded for the first time in a breakthrough which could help doctors to know whether or not antibiotics are working.

Scientists at the Technical University of Delft, in the Netherlands, theorized that if microscopic germs produce sounds, it would be a simple way of checking that they were alive – similar to listening for a pulse or heartbeat.

But bacteria are so tiny that recording any noises using traditional methods is impossible.

Instead, experts constructed a small drum made from graphene, a material composed of a single layer of carbon atoms, which is extremely good at conducting tiny amounts of sound and electricity.

When they placed E.coli on the graphene surface, and linked it to a speaker, the team was amazed to hear the gentle thrum of a living bacterium.

“What we heard was striking,” said Prof Cees Dekker, a nanobiologist at TU Delft.

“When a single bacterium adheres to the surface of a graphene drum, it generates random oscillations with amplitudes as low as a few nanometers that we could detect. We could hear the sound of a single bacterium. ”

The tiny beats are a result of biological processes within the bacteria, and also the movement of the tails – or flagella – which help propel the bug forward.

‘How cool is that?’

“These flagellar beats on graphene are at least 10 billion times smaller than a boxer’s punch when reaching a punch bag,” said researcher Dr Farbod Alijani, who led the study.

“Yet, these nanoscale beats can be converted to sound tracks and listened to – and how cool is that?”

The team is hopeful the research could be used to detect whether bacteria have developed antibiotic resistance to a drug. In experiments, researchers found that if the bug is resistant to an antibiotic, the oscillations continued at the same level.

When the bacteria were susceptible to the drug, vibrations decreased for one or two hours, and then stopped completely.

Dr Alijani added: “Eventually it could be used as an effective diagnostic toolkit for fast detection of antibiotic resistance in clinical practice.

“Graphene is a form of carbon consisting of a single layer of atoms and is also known as the wonder material. It’s very strong with nice electrical and mechanical properties, and it’s also extremely sensitive to external forces. ”

Prof Peter Steeneken, of TU Delft’s Precision and Microsystems Engineering department, said: “This would be an invaluable tool in the fight against antibiotic resistance, an ever-increasing threat to human health around the world.”

The research was published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

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