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Frances Ashcroft We’re all familiar with the fact that machines are powered by electricity, but it’s perhaps not so widely appreciated that the same is true of ourselves. Your ability to read and understand this page, to see and hear, to think and speak, to move your arms and legs – even your sense of self – is due to the electrical events taking place in the nerve cells in your brain and the muscle cells in your limbs. And that electrical activity is initiated and regulated by your ion channels. These little-known but crucially important proteins are found in every cell of our body and in those of every organism on Earth, and they regulate our lives from the moment of conception until we draw our last breath. Ion channels are truly the ‘spark of life’ for they govern every aspect of our behaviour. From the lashing of the sperm’s tail to sexual attraction, the beating of our hearts, the craving for yet another chocolate, and the feel of the sun on your skin – everything is underpinned by ion channel activity. Not surprisingly, given their ubiquity and functional importance, a multitude of medicinal drugs work by regulating the activity of these minute molecular machines, and impaired ion channel function is responsible for many human and animal diseases. Pigs that shiver themselves to death, a herd of goats that falls over when startled, people with cystic fibrosis, epilepsy, heart arrhythmias or migraines – all of us are victims of channel dysfunction. The science of static electricity starts with the ancient Greeks’ fascination with amber. It is from their word for amber, electrum, which derives from elector, meaning ‘the shining one’, that we get the word electron, and hence electricity. But amber has another interesting and curious property. When rubbed with wool it generates static electricity, causing it to attract light, dry objects like small bits of tissue paper, feathers, specks of wheat chaff, and even your hair. Amber generates a static charge because it attracts electrons from the atoms of the wool, becoming negatively charged in the process and leaving the wool positively charged. The charge is transferred by close contact between the amber and wool – the friction produced by rubbing is not involved, it is simply that rubbing greatly increases the area of contact between the two surfaces. Parenthetically, there is nothing static about ‘static’ electricity. The term refers only to the fact that the positive and negative electric charges are physically separated. As soon as a positively charged material comes close enough to a negatively charged one, current will flow from one to the other – as visibly demonstrated by the leap of an electric spark. It was William Gilbert, physician to Queen Elizabeth I, who first invented a sensitive instrument for measuring static electricity (an early electroscope). He used it to compile a long list of materials that could be electrified by rubbing. He also distinguished the attractive power of amber from that of magnets, arguing that two different phenomena are involved. There was no way to store static electricity until the invention of the Leyden jar in October 1745 by a German cleric, Ewald Jürgen von Kleist. Initially, it was believed that electricity was a fluid, so it seemed natural to use bottles and jars to store it in, but it was later appreciated that this was not the case and today the Leyden jar has been replaced by the capacitor. This operates on the same principle. It consists of two parallel metal plates separated by a thin layer of a non-conductive material such as mica, glass or air. The amount of charge a capacitor can store is determined by the area of the plates and the distance between them, and it can be considerable. The first atom smasher, built in the 1930s at Cambridge University by John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton, used banks of capacitors to generate and store up to almost a million volts.
potassium ions tend to leave the cell when the potassium channels open. . in essence. almost all currents in the animal kingdom are carried by ions – electrically charged atoms. the inside of the cell being about 70 millivolts more negative than the outside. the insideof the cell briefly becoming positive with respect to the outside. The number of sodium ions is much higher outside the cell than inside. The solutions inside our cells. potassium.The electricity supplied to our homes is carried by electrons. chloride. They open only when the membrane potential becomes more positive and when this happens it triggers an electrical impulse. that spans the cell membrane. the ion concentration gradients gradually run down and when they have collapsed completely no electrical impulses can be generated. And while externally applied electric shocks can interfere with the electrical impulses in our nerve and muscle cells. Consequently. is why we cannot reanimate a corpse with electricity. Because they are electrically charged. are high in potassium ions and low in sodium ions. There are five main ions that carry currents in our bodies. then. It is these ion movements that give rise to our nerve and muscle impulses. we define current as the direction of flow of positive charges. The brain alone uses about 10 per cent of the oxygen you breathe to drive the sodium pump and keep your nerve cell batteries charged. and why the spark of life is different from the electricity supplied to our homes. This protein pumps out excess sodium ions that leak into the cell and exchanges them for potassium ions. Confusingly. In the case of positively charged ions. As we no longer have the energy to power the sodium pump and maintain the ion differences across our cell membranes. If the pump fails. These indivisible subatomic particles carry a negative electric charge and because opposite charges attract one another (and similar charges repel) electrons always flow from a region of negative to positive charge. and that regulate the beating of our hearts. the movement of ions creates an electric current. which means that the current in a wire moves in the opposite direction to that in which the electrons flow! In contrast. All cells have a potential difference across their membranes. whereas for negatively charged ions (as for electrons) it is in the opposite direction. nerves. known as the sodium pump. In resting nerve and muscle cells. the movement of our muscles and the electrical signals in our brains that give rise to our thoughts. calcium and hydrogen (protons) – and one. our cells soon cease to function. Because ions are charged. as there are many more potassium ions inside than out. It is extraordinary to think that about a third of the oxygen we breathe and half of the food we eat is used to maintain the ion concentration gradients across our cell membranes. In contrast. It is such currents. This. your sense organs. ‘Voltage-dependent’ gating requires that the channel is able to sense a change in the voltage field across the membrane. carried by ions surging through ion channels. so that sodium ions flood into the cell when the sodium channel gates open. Conversely. is negatively chacged. the current flow is in the same direction as the flow of ions. that underlie all our nerve and muscle impulses. blood and the extracellular fluids that bathe our cells are low in potassium but high in sodium ions. This. When a nerve fires an electrical impulse this potential suddenly alters by about 100 millivolts. Four are positively charged – sodium. they cannot restore the ion concentration gradients across our cell membranes once they have collapsed. The transmembrane sodium and potassium gradients are maintained by a minute molecular motor. in the same way that a flat battery cannot start your car. their flow produces an electric current. muscles – indeed all your cells – simply grind to a halt. This is what happens when we die. These ionic differences are exploited to generate the electrical impulses in our nerve and muscle cells. the voltage-gated sodium and potassium channels are held firmly shut by the negative membrane potential. Ions take the path of least resistance and move down their concentration gradient from an area of high concentration to one of low concentration. and those of all other organisms on Earth. is how the energy stored in the concentration gradients is used to power the electrical impulses of our nerve and muscle fibres.
Apoptosis is also a way to ensure that damaged cells that might threaten an organism’s survival are eliminated. is released from nerves that innervate the heart. As a consequence. a tentative connection is established. If this process of body sculpting fails. ion channels are responsible for the electrical impulses of heart cells. Adrenaline is made by the adrenal glands that lie just above the kidney. These channels are similar. and cells whose DNA is damaged are encouraged to commit suicide to prevent cancers forming. and it also boosts the amount of calcium that is released from the intracellular stores and thereby enhances the strength of contraction. so that the heart relaxes. noradrenaline. The end of the cardiac action potential is produced by opening of potassium channels. many nerve cells are born and send forth their axons towards their destination in an exploratory manner. . so that the heart rate is increased. It has been known for centuries that the heart has an intrinsic rhythm and can continue to beat when it is removed from the living animal. This is caused by the ‘fight or flight’ hormone adrenaline. William Harvey even showed that when the heart of an eel was cut into ever-smaller parts each individual piece continued to pulsate. you end up born with webbed fingers. Everyone who has kept tadpoles has seen such cell suicide in action for the gradual disappearance of the tadpole’s tail as it develops into a baby frog occurs by apoptosis and reabsorption of the dying cells. One of the first to describe the phenomenon was the great Roman physician Galen. reported that the heart moves by itself. ensuring that a single nerve impulse produces only a single muscle twich. Unlike those of nerve cells. including Leonardo da Vinci.Unlike nerve fibres. more types of channel are involved in shaping the action potential of the heart. but not the heart. It does so by opening additional calcium channels in heart cell membranes. you had webbed hands and feet like those of a duck. As you developed inside your mother’s womb. However. If they find their correct targets. many cardiac potassium channels take a long time to open. As in the case of nerve cells. and the link is cemented. Similarly. impulses speed excitedly down the lines. the calcium channels shut. Nerve cells whose axons fail to find their correct targets produce more feeble impulse activity and simply wither away through lack of use. Early in development. the cells that made up the web of soft tissue between your digits were killed off in a process known as programmed cell death (or apoptosis) so that you ended up with separate fingers and toes. and is secreted into the bloodstream in response to stress or exercise. cell suicide plays a key role in the development of the nervous system and in how your brain is wired up. preventing calcium influx. It is initiated by the opening of sodium channels. apoptosis is drawn to the attention of a woman every month. which primes the body to cope with an adverse situation by increasing both the rate and the force of contraction. but not identical to those of nerve cells. muscle fibres have a high density of chloride channels. which enables calcium ions to flood into the cell. Long ago. and in normal muscle the flow of chloride ions across the membrane dampens down electrical excitability. a related substance with a similar action. Many die during brain development and without such cell suicide the brain could not function correctly. Your immune system can kill cells infected with viruses this way. This speeds up the rate at which the sinus node cells fire. Perhaps most important of all. and subsequently many others. and the resulting efflux of potassium ions returns the voltage gradient across the membrane to its resting value. Opening of the sodium channel pores is quickly followed by the opening of calcium channels. for the sloughing off of the lining of the womb that occurs at the start of her period is also the result of programmed cell death. which explains why fatal poisons like that of the puffer fish block electrical impulses in the nerves. chemical kisses are exchanged. before you were born. as occasionally happens. where they trigger the release of stored calcium and thereby contraction. All of us have experienced the speeding of the heart when we are excited or afraid. and the thumping beat that makes us feel as if our heart is about to burst. which helps ensure that the duration of the action potential in the heart is much longer.
the cells of most terrestrial plants are not bathed in a salty extracellular fluid. . even a short nap can help with learning a new task. Unlike animal cells. Mammals that live in the sea would drown if they fell sleep underwater. A common theme in the nervous system is that the response to a continuous stimulus gradually weakens. as mitochondria act as molecular furnaces where fuels such as sugar and fats are burned with oxygen to produce chemical energy. Cells that require a lot of energy. Some unfortunate children have intractable epilepsy that is unresponsive to drug therapy and involves parts of the brain inaccessible to surgery. Quite why we sleep is still something of a mystery. Strikingly. which often sleep away the night with one eye open. it stops most seizures in about a third of patients and reduces their frequency in a further third. about the size of a bacterium. they are also present in the skin of your fingertips. but substances such as wasabi (the hot Japanese horseradish). tiny intracellular organelles. but there is evidence that one reason is that it is important for memory consolidation. arises from the fact it activates an ion channel that detects cold temperatures. with one side remaining awake while the other is deeply asleep. Delgado stood his ground and calmly twiddled a button on a remote control device that sent a signal to a transceiver connected to an electrode implanted in the animal’s brain. keeping watch for predators. so they rest half of their brain at a time. rather similar to the blue-green algae (the cyanobacteria) that form the familiar green scum on lakes in hot summers. Electrical stimulation of the caudate nucleus stopped the bull in its tracks: it skidded to a halt within a few feet of the scientist. but around two billion years ago these ancestral mitochondria gave up the solitary life and became incorporated within early cells. José Manuel Rodriguez Delgado was sufficiently confident of this idea that in 1963 he stepped into a bullring in Cordoba in front of an aggressive fighting bull. garlic and camphor. So the reason chilli peppers taste so hot is that they open the same ion channel as high temperature and because the brain cannot tell the difference between the two stimuli it interprets them both as heat. called TRP channels. mustard. This channel is structurally very similar to the capsaicin receptor and in fact we now know that there is a whole family of such channels. An old treatment that is surprisingly effective in some of these patients is to severely restrict their consumption of carbohydrates. Many of these channels are also sensitive to a range of pungent or painful chemicals – not just capsaicin.There are several ways in which a cell can self-destruct but. Known as the ketogenic diet because it leads to the rise of metabolic by-products known as ketone bodies in the blood. It is not impossible to control another creature’s behaviour simply by stimulating the correct bit of the brain. without adequate sleep our ability to remember things diminishes. As it charged towards him. have large numbers of mitochondria. Thus like the Star Trek aliens known as the Trill. As you will no doubt already know from experience. We are pre-programmed to respond most strongly to changes in our environment and cease to pay attention if nothing new happens. plants must rely on chloride efflux. fresh taste of menthol. These channels are not just found in the tongue. one of them is mediated by an ion channel. like muscle cells. The minty. Almost all plant and animal cells contain mitochondria and they are essential for life: without them. face and other sensitive parts of the body. found in peppermint oil. It also involves the mitochondria. that are found in almost every cell of your body. Instead. each of which detects a different shade of temperature. Ions are present at very low levels in plant cell walls and thus an influx of sodium ions would not be a viable means of producing an action potential. So too do many birds. we live our lives in partnership with another organism – but this is no science fiction and our symbionts are microscopic. as you have probably guessed. multicellular organisms could not function. The ancestors of mitochondria were once free-living entities. a phenomenon that has a clear evolutionary advantage.