Our electrical body
How does the developing body know where to put the features of the face, where to put the limbs and all those other amazing facets of our physiology?
It has to do with the body’s innate electrical system, says Professor Michael Levin from Tufts University in the US.
In a fascinating experiment, Levin showed that a developing frog embryo generated a series of electrical patterns in the very locations where, a few hours later, the ears, eyes and nose appeared. In other words, the electrical signals generated a blueprint for these features.
One of the ways the body’s electricity is generated is by electrically-charged ions – such as sodium, calcium and potassium. When a cell’s numerous ion channels open, these ions move through, changing the voltage of the cell and creating down-stream effects. It was voltage changes like these that caused the electrical patterns that foreshadowed the development of the facial features of the developing tadpole.
Levin describes the process like this. ‘[A]ll cells, not just neurons, have ion-channel proteins and pumps that set their resting potential …; this is now known to be a key parameter regulating cell-level behaviors such as proliferation, differentiation, apoptosis, migration, and directional polarization in a wide range of cells from yeast to human stem cells.’
Levin has shown that changing the body’s bioelectrical pattern can change its physical appearance, too. By artificially changing voltage states, he managed to develop worms with heads at both ends of their bodies, for example.
These findings could have therapeutic applications. Levin says, ‘the ideal bioelectric interventions will permanently re-set patterns towards which cells work. The role of bioelectric circuits in implementing large-scale decision making in cell collectives offers the opportunity to induce repair of disease states (and not simply to address symptoms)…’
As wireless radiation has been shown to affect the function of ion-channel proteins, and therefore potentially the voltage state, we wonder whether exposure could also affect the development and health of an organism.
Sally Adee, ‘The amazing ways electricity in your body shapes you and your health’, New Scientist 22 February 2023.
Levin, Bioelectric signaling: Reprogrammable circuits underlying embryogenesis, regeneration, and cancer, Cell (2021), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2021.02.034;
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May 4, 2023