She added that the research opens the door to a whole new way of studying the basic cellular processes that enable life.
"People have been trying to measure these vibrations in proteins for many, many years, since the 1960s," Markelz said.
She and her team managed to do it based on an interesting characteristic of proteins. They vibrate at the same frequency as the light they absorb. This is analogous to the way wine glasses tremble and shatter when a singer hits exactly the right note.
"Wine glasses vibrate because they are absorbing the energy of sound waves, and the shape of a glass determines what pitches of sound it can absorb," she said. "Similarly, proteins with different structures will absorb and vibrate in response to light of different frequencies."
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In order to study vibrations in a protein known as "lysozyme," the scientists then exposed a sample to light of different frequencies and polarizations, and measured the types of light the protein absorbed. This allowed them to identify which sections of the protein vibrated under normal biological conditions. The researchers were also able to see that the vibrations endured over time, challenging existing assumptions.