New light on body electricity

October 16, 2023

Scientists have discovered something new and fascinating about human biology. And it has to do with biology’s own electromagnetic fields.

We know that the body generates electrical energy – brain waves that can be measured with an EEG, fields from the heart that can be measured with an ECG, and electrical charges pass through cell membranes.

But a new study from Duke University has revealed that electrical fields also occur inside parts of some cells that remain relatively unstudied, in areas known as biological condensates, which play important roles in the body.

‘Biomolecular condensates regulate diverse cellular processes, including stress response, signalling, and transcription,’ says Dr Yifan Dai, one of the study’s authors.

He says, ‘Various types of biomolecular condensates can stably co-exist in a cell’. They exist side-by-side, separated not by membranes, but by a thin stratum that separates the condensates and the cytoplasm based on differences in their densities. Think of the structure of a mixture of oil and water. The meeting point between them is the ‘interface’ This is where the action takes place.

That’s because there is a difference in the electrical potential between the denser interior of the condensate and the less dense cytoplasm in the cell. And this creates an electric field.

Dai’s discovery shows that electrical fields exist within the cell, and not just at the cell membrane as previously thought.

Moreover, Dai has found that these biological condensates don’t just regulate cellular functions through defined sets of biomolecules, but also play an important role in driving redox reactions, a source of chemical energy.

When electric charges jump between one material and another, they can break molecules into fragments that can pair up and form hydroxyl radicals. These can then pair again to form hydrogen peroxide in tiny but detectable amounts.

These chemicals take place in what’s known as redox reactions that play a role in the generation of energy in the body.

‘Our study shows that such an interface can organize the formation of an electric double layer that generates an electric field, which can modulate redox reactions. These redox reactions can in turn affect intracellular redox balance and cell physiology,’ Dai says.

Dai’s study provides new insights on the body’s intrinsic electric fields and their role in producing energy in the body.

‘Magic can happen when substances get tiny and the ratio between the interfacial volume to its total volume becomes enormous,’ Dai said. ‘I think the implications are important to many different fields.’

Yifan Dai et al, Interface of biomolecular condensates modulates redox reactions, Chem (2023). DOI: 10.1016/j.chempr.2023.04.001 

EMR Australia would like to thank Duke University and Dr Dai for their assistance with this article.

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