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Electrobionics Capsule

Life is Electrical

Electric fields pervade biological systems, from the atomic interactions that determine the minimum free energy paths of ions through membrane channels to the transmission of signals through the nervous systems of multicellular animals. Every molecular link in the complex genomic, transcriptomic, proteomic web of a living cell is formed from the physical and chemical associations of atoms, which we dissect with coulombic and quantum mechanical tools.

Life is electrical at the level of the organism as well. Animals interact with their environment and with each other by sensing and in some cases generating external electric fields, and of course the consciousness which permits our contemplation of these matters is itself anchored in the complex electricity of the brain.

The Strong and Short of It

We are exposed to electric and magnetic fields throughout our lives, from natural and artificial electromagnetic radiation (the light of the sun, the cacophony of radio), and from sources like the terrestrial magnetic field, cellular telephones, hair dryers, microwave ovens, magnetic resonance imagers, and electrical power transmission lines. But, setting aside direct sunlight and the cavities of microwave ovens, the physical magnitude of these exposures is small. Despite the considerable efforts of dedicated investigators, no persuasive evidence has been presented for persistent or harmful effects from any of these fields --- assuming that one obeys common sense, avoiding sunburn and refraining from climbing into the microwave. (Yes, I will gladly post links to science-based arguments to the contrary.)

Of course large electric fields can and do affect living systems. Many biologists are familiar with electroporation, for example, a laboratory procedure in which cells or tissues are exposed to brief electrical pulses in order to render them permeable to normally excluded substances (like pharmacological or genetic material) or to promote cell fusion. Some of us are studying the response of cells to ultrashort pulses --- too short to cause electroporation --- with rise times and amplitudes sufficient to develop substantial electrical potentials across targeted intracellular structures.


Physiological transmembrane electric fields are on the order of tens of megavolts per meter. Generating pulses that are fast enough to cross the capacitive barrier of the cytoplasmic membrane and large enough in amplitude to produce perturbative fields in the interior of the cell is one of the challenges of electrobionics.

USC Pulsed Power Group

Tom Vernier
Semiconductor and Electrobionic Engineer
Email: vernier@ieee.org
URL: http://www.electrobionics.org/
Phone: --------------

Last revised 2004 DEC 25

Copyright © 2001--2004 by Tom Vernier.
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