Bioelectric implants could make cyborgs of us all, but first, we need to figure out how to best make them function.
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Imagine machines as small as a grain of rice, or even smaller—some invisible to the naked eye. Now, imagine that your body contains these machines, and they are integral to many of your bodily functions. Got rheumatoid arthritis? One of these devices fires electrical impulses into your vagus nerve, easing the effects of your condition. Or, say you’re a soldier on the battlefield; an implant signals your spleen to accelerate blood clotting, stanching the flow from a gunshot wound. Even Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s may someday be kept in check via brain stimulation from tiny circuits embedded in your gray matter.
Not Just Sci-Fi
These implants already exist. And, if certain fundamental challenges can be overcome, they’ll be ready for human application in the not-to-distant future. Battelle, for example, plans on bringing their “neural tourniquet” to market by about 2018. They claim that the device can control blood loss, as per the battlefield scenario above. SetPoint Medical has a “microregulator”—a bean-sized implant that will allegedly modulate the immune system (neuromodulation, they call it) to control inflammatory disorders such as Crohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis. Several prominent life sciences firms, Boston Scientific among them, have invested in SetPoint.
Further, British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has joined forces with Google's life sciences division, Verily. Their joint company, Galvani, will operate independently from both Google and GSK, and will focus solely on bioelectronic medicine. Galvani will explore the role of nerve signals in various health disorders. And how bioelectronic implants can modulate those signals. As the only pharma company aggressively developing bioelectronic implant technologies, GSK is hoping to get far ahead of the pack by the time these tiny implants become mainstream.
Ultimately, these nascent solutions will replace medication, or much of it, providing much more targeted—not to mention effective—treatments, without the side effects. Cancer, diabetes, obesity, asthma, and epilepsy are all targets of bioelectronic medicine, according to Gaia Vince’s Mosiac article, “Bioelectric Dreams.” However, researchers have yet to surmount some formidable obstacles to the realization of bioelectronics treatments. Foremost is the question of how to power the devices.
The Problem of Power
Researchers and engineers already possess most of the constituent technologies needed, but major barriers remain. One of those is figuring out how to power the implants. Since they're designed to remain in small spaces for long periods of time, internal batteries are less than ideal. If you're not going to power the device from inside, the only other option is to power it from the outside. As it turns out, this is really hard to do.
The most promising solution: wireless juicing with "near-infrared-ray (nIR) irradiation." As a Nanowerk article explains, this involves a flashing light that can penetrate into human tissue as deep as 10 cm. The bioelectronic implant absorbs this flashing nIR and experiences temperature fluctuations as a result. Apparently, these rapid changes in temperature produce voltage/current pulses that a team at Xi'an Jiaotong University has used to successfully stimulate the sciatic nerve of a frog, as well as a rat heart.
While the team's stimulation of rodent and amphibian nerves is certainly impressive, one can't help but imagine a future of strobe-lit citizens crowding onto subways or sitting down for dinner in upscale restaurants, their implants gyrating to the rhythm of incoming radiation.
Electricity on a Plate
In another development, a Stanford team sent an electrical current through a "flat plate adorned with a specially designed...conductive material." With this plate—measuring 6 cm on each side—mounted on a hapless rabbit, they powered a rice-sized pacemaker in the bunny's heart. Again, impressive, but more progress is needed. Even if other constraints with the plate-powering system were overcome, the appearance would solicit plenty of objections. Assuming I needed a tiny stimulator in the parietal region of my frontal lobe, I don't know that I'd be thrilled to have a metal square fastened to my forehead. Then again, depending on my ailment, the relief just might justify the Frankensteinian aesthetic. Perhaps such skull plates might spawn a new fashion trend—medi-goth, anyone?
Blood, Sweat, and Tears
Human bodies produce energy; another avenue of research aims to harness it to power devices. We burn 2,000 to 3,000 calories per day; we'd need only to tap a tiny fraction of that to run a small implant.
Turns out, our bodily fluids contain a lot of energy for the taking. Enzymatic biofuel cells (EFC) are already undergoing animal tests for their ability to metabolize energy-rich molecules for electricity generation. Via oxidation, the enzymes in the EFC force electrons into an electrode, which generates a small current. Plasma (the colorless, liquid component of blood) contains dissolved glucose, which many EFCs have been designed to use. Sweat contains lactate, which can power EFCs, but most of us don't sweat continuously. So, that avenue may fizzle. Tears, however, contain a cocktail of energy-rich molecules—and our eyes produce them constantly in minute amounts. Already, bioengineers at the University of Utah have developed an electrode-containing contact lens that "maintained a power output of over one microwatt for three hours" when exposed to a synthetic tear solution.
2) Your body runs on bioelectricity
Your body runs on bioelectricity. Cells are designed to run in an environment of -20 to -25 millivolts. To repair and heal, cells need an environment of -50 millivolts
Inadequate voltage is a characteristic of all chronic disease. Either you do not have the necessary voltage to run the cells, or the higher voltage needed to make new cells
To heal, you need the proper voltage. You also need all of the necessary raw materials (nutrients) required to make new cells and address any toxins that might damage cells as fast as you make them
Your body runs on bioelectricity, and having a deeper understanding of how it works can be quite helpful when it comes to optimizing your health. Natural health pioneer Dr. Jerry Tennant has written an excellent book on this topic called "Healing Is Voltage: The Handbook."
The Electric Brain
Trained as an ophthalmologist, Tennant transitioned into natural health as a result of being forced to solve his own health challenges. After doing laser eye surgery on a patient with leukemia, Tennant ended up developing encephalitis. He believes the virus, which is not killed by laser, traveled from the patient's cornea, through the mask, up through his nose into his brain. He was forced to quit work in November 1995, and spent the next seven years bedridden, without hope for recovery.
"I went to the best doctors I could find in New York, Boston and so forth. They all said, 'Well, sorry. You have three viruses in your brain. We don't know what to do about it. Don't call us. We'll call you.' I had two or three hours a day in which I could understand the newspaper. Then like a light switch, it would go off and I couldn't understand it anymore. During those two or three hours that I could think, I realized I had to figure out how to get myself well, because no one else was going to do it.
I had the idea that if I could figure out how to make one cell work, I could make them all work, because although they look different, they really all have the same component parts. They just have different software. I began to read cellular biology books … One of the things that resonated with me was that … cells must run at a pH between 7.35 and 7.45. I didn't really know what that meant, except it was something about acid-base balance.
I began to try to understand pH. I began to realize that pH is the name given to voltage in a liquid. If you think about the voltage that runs electric lights or a computer, that's called conductive electricity. That means electrons are moving along copper wires. But in a liquid, you have a different situation. A liquid can either be an electron donor or an electron stealer.
By convention, if the liquid … is an electron stealer, you put a plus sign in front of the voltage. If it's an electron donor, you put a minus sign in front of it. You take a sophisticated volt meter called a pH meter and put it in the liquid. It will actually read out in voltage; minus 400 millivolts of electron donor is the same thing as pH of 14. Plus 400 millivolts of electron stealer is the same as a pH of zero. Of course, if it's neutral, it's a pH of 7."
Healing Requires Double the Voltage
A pH meter can give you a reading of either pH or millivolts. It's actually easier to understand what's going on if you use millivolts. A pH of 7.35 equates to -20 millivolts of electron donor. A pH of 7.45 is -25 millivolts of electron donor. Cells are designed to run in an environment of -20 to -25 millivolts.
People get confused because if you measure across a cell membrane you get about minus 90 millivolts. But the environment is designed to be -20 to -25 millivolts.
"That was a critical piece of my understanding to begin to understand how to get myself well," Tennant says (who, by the way, turned 77 this past June and still enjoys healthy mental faculties and goes to work every day). To repair and heal, on the other hand, cells need an environment of -50 millivolts. In other words, you need double the normal voltage to repair or replace damaged cells.
"Dr. Hiroki Nakatani in Japan was the first person to use modern electronics to measure acupuncture meridians. He published his work in 1951. Dr. Reinhard Voll in Germany did similar work and published it in 1952. I was able to get Nakatani's rather rudimentary device (an ohmmeter) and found that my brain was running somewhere between 2 and 4 millivolts, instead of the 25 that it needed to run and the 50 it needed to repair.
Now, it was obvious why it didn't work," he says. "Understanding that my brain didn't have enough voltage to work correctly, that was really what started me on the journey of trying to figure out how to get things to work again."
Chronic Disease Is the Result of Failure to Make Functional Cells
First, he came across work by a Russian doctor named Alexander Karasev, who had identified a waveform that can transfer electrons to cell membranes. He was able to acquire a SCENAR device developed by Karasev and began to treat himself with it. Years later, he developed his own Biomodulator device.1
"As I began to recognize that the body had to have energy, the other big change in my paradigm was when I finally understood that the body is constantly wearing itself out and having to make new cells. You get new cones in the macula of your eye every 48 hours. The lining of the gut is replaced every three days. The skin that you and I are sitting in today is only 6 weeks old. Your liver's 8 weeks old. Your nervous system's 8 months old.
One of the things I began to realize then is that chronic disease only occurs when you lose the ability to make new cells that work. [By extension], if you say that you must have a cell that works, that cell must contain functional mitochondria. But the mitochondria are not going to work if the cell membranes don't work.
It's the total unit that you have to have working. It's sort of like having a brand-new car. If it doesn't have a transmission, even though you've got the rest of it there, it's not going to work. You have to have the whole thing … Cells actually have four battery packs. The mitochondria are only one of those battery packs. You want them all to be functional."
In a nutshell, inadequate voltage is a characteristic of all chronic disease. Either you do not have the necessary voltage to run the cells, or the higher voltage needed to make new cells. So, to heal, you need the proper voltage. You also need all of the necessary raw materials (nutrients) required to make new cells and address any
toxins that might damage cells as fast as you make them.
Body Electric — The Human Battery System
According to Tennant, there are four major battery systems in the human body that make cells work. The largest is your muscle battery. Your muscles are piezoelectric, which means that when you engage your muscles, electrons are emitted. In a way, your muscles act like rechargeable batteries, so while they emit electrons, they also store them.
To recharge the "battery pack" in your muscles, all you need to do is move and exercise. In summary, the four battery systems found in the human body are as follows. All of these battery systems must be functional for cells to work correctly:
1. Muscle battery pack — Your muscles are stacked one on top of the other in a specific order (much like batteries in a flashlight) to form a power pack. Each organ has its own battery pack, which is a stack of muscle batteries. According to Tennant, each stack of muscle batteries corresponds to an acupuncture meridian.
The muscle batteries are surrounded by fascia, which acts as a semiconductor — an arranged metabolic molecule designed to move electrons at the speed of light, but only in one direction. Together, the muscle stack and the surrounding fascia serve as the wiring system for your body, carrying the voltage from the muscle battery inside, out through the fascia and to the appropriate organ.
2. Cell membrane capacitor — Cell membranes are composed of fats called phospholipids, shaped like a circle with two "legs." The circle is an electron conductor and the legs are insulators. They're stacked together so that you have two conductors separated by an insulator, which is the definition of a capacitor.
The difference between a capacitor and a regular battery is when a capacitor discharges, it discharges all of its charge whereas a battery discharges slowly. So, each cell membrane acts like a small battery (capacitor), which is continuously fed electrons from the muscle battery packs.
3. ADP/ATP battery — Inside each cell is yet another rechargeable battery system called adenosine diphosphate/adenosine triphosphate (ADP/ATP). When this battery is charged up, it's called ATP. When the battery's discharged, it's called ADP. Because it's a rechargeable battery system, there's a type of battery charger inside of the cell as well. We call that Krebs cycle, or the citric acid cycle.
The citric acid cycle prefers fatty acids. When sufficient oxygen is available, for every unit of fatty acid you put into the citric acid cycle, you get enough electrons to charge up 38 ATP batteries. If oxygen is unavailable, for every unit of fatty acids you put into the citric acid cycle you only get enough electrons to charge up two of those batteries.
Hence, when oxygen drops, this ADP/ATP battery system becomes very inefficient. "It's like a car that goes from 38 miles a gallon to 2 miles a gallon," Tennant says.
4. The DNA battery — Lastly, there's DNA. The DNA molecule measures 34 by 21 angstroms per double helix cycle.2 The ratio of these numbers is very close to phi and is known as the golden section or golden mean. "Anytime you have something that's a golden mean and expose it to scalar energy … scalar energy implodes into the center and becomes the power supply for DNA," Tennant says.
Fifth Energy System — Structured Water
A fifth system that holds and delivers energy is structured water — negatively charged water found in your cells and extracellular tissues. Typical tap water is H2O, but this fourth phase is actually H3O2. It's more viscous, more ordered and more alkaline than regular water, and the refractive index (optical property) of this water is about 10 percent higher than ordinary water. Its density is also about 10 percent higher and, as mentioned, it has a negative charge (negative electrical potential).
This may provide the answer as to why human cells are negatively charged. Tennant does not go into structured water here, but it's a whole additional component that also plays an important role in health and disease. In summary, the way you recharge this structured water is through sunlight. Sun exposure structures the water in your body, which provides greater energy. To learn more about this, please review "Water Supports Health in Ways You May Never Have Suspected."
What Cells Require for Proper Function
As mentioned, chronic disease is characterized by low voltage. The obvious question then becomes, why won't the battery packs hold a charge? Here, a number of factors can come into play. Among the most important are:
Thyroid hormones — The thyroid hormone T3 controls the voltage of cell membranes while T2 controls the voltage of the mitochondria. Hence, you need adequate T3 and T2 for things to work. "What I find is that basic to all chronic diseases is that you have to make sure you get the thyroid piece right, because if you don't, then nothing else tends to work correctly," Tennant says.
"One of the problems is doctors are trained to look at thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) and sometimes T4. But TSH and T4 could be normal, but if you don't have the cofactors that it takes to convert T4 to T3, you're still hypothyroid at the cell level."
Dental infections — As mentioned, voltage runs from the muscle battery out through the fascia to the organs. On the way, each muscle battery pack or meridian runs through a specific tooth. There are acupuncture meridian charts showing which meridian corresponds to which tooth.
According to Tennant, teeth act like circuit breakers, so if you have an infection in a tooth, it will lower the voltage, eventually turning the voltage off in that circuit. When that happens, the organs powered by that particular circuit will begin to malfunction.
Scars — According to Tennant, scars can significantly inhibit or drain voltage. To treat scars, Tennant uses essential oils in combination with his proprietary device called the Biomodulator/Biotransducer. "Just put the Biotransducer over [the scar] until you feel the magnetic fields go away. That opens up the scar and now the voltage goes through it," he says. "It takes about three minutes and works great."
Emotions Create Distorted Magnetic Fields That Lower Voltage
Another really important factor that lowers your body voltage are stuck, negative emotions. Your body actually stores emotions as magnetic fields. Tennant explains:
"If you put a magnetic field in one of the body's circuits, it simply blocks the flow of electrons. So, what we found is that one of the most important things that start chronic disease is actually emotions. You can identify these emotional magnetic fields in a variety of different ways.
Work by Eileen McKusick and others have shown we're all surrounded by this magnetic field. It goes out about 5 feet … [One of the things McKusick taught is you can take a tuning fork, strike it and you'll hear it hum.
As you move it through the field, when it hits one of these areas of emotional distortion, its pitch goes deeper. You can actually hear it. If you can put a pendulum right where you find it, you'll see the pendulum spins counter-clockwise if there's an emotional distortion there. It spins clockwise if there isn't."
To erase the aberrant magnetic fields caused by negative emotions, Tennant applies a stronger magnetic field using his Biomodulator, which not only can transfer electrons but also put out a variety of waveforms, including scalar energy.
Treating Macular Degeneration
Today, Tennant no longer practices general ophthalmology. The only eye problems he treats are macular degeneration and glaucoma, using voltage-based techniques. The macula is on the stomach meridian. "The reason people get macular degeneration is that they lose the minus 50 millivolts they need to make new cells every 48 hours," he says. "As those cells wear out, they can't get replacements."
To address it, you need to determine why there's deficient voltage in the stomach meridian. You also need to make sure you're giving your body all the materials needed to replace those macular cells. Nerve cells are 50 percent cholesterol by weight, so it's nearly impossible to reverse macular degeneration if you're on a statin drug, as you will not have enough cholesterol in your system.
Other important nutrients are animal-based omega-3 fats and fulvic acid, typically sold as "fulvic trace minerals," which provides vitamins, minerals and amino acids.
"Fulvic acid is a primary control of cell membranes because it's one of the few substances that can be either plus or minus, as it needs to be," Tennant explains. "When we take that, it provides the things we need. Of course, there's research coming out now that shows not only does it correct mineral deficiencies, but it begins to help with the way our intestinal cells interlock, and so on.
Also, fulvic acid is a great way to get rid of heavy metals because [it goes] inside the cell, grabs the metal, pulls it out, hands it off to the humic, which then takes it out of your body. In intravenous chelation, the chelating materials can only get to extracellular things, because they won't go inside the cells where almost all the metals reside."
Astaxanthin, a potent antioxidant, can also be quite beneficial. Since the macula replaces itself every 48 hours, people with dry macular degeneration may start noticing results in as little as three or four days, provided you've addressed the nutritional component as well. In many cases, Tennant has been able to restore vision to within the normal reading range.
Wet macular degeneration is more difficult, as the bleeding causes scarring and new cells cannot eliminate the scar. In these cases, the goal is to stabilize the disease and prevent further deterioration.
To treat glaucoma, you have to treat the liver/gallbladder circuit, as the optic nerve is on the liver/gallbladder meridian. "The optic nerve replaces itself every eight months if it has the 50 millivolts to do it," he says. "What you'll find in every glaucoma patient is that the polarity in the liver meridian has dropped down past zero, so it's an electron stealer instead of an electron donor."
You also need to treat the sympathetic system, which controls lymphatics, because the outflow channel of your eye is part of the lymphatic system. So, "to fix glaucoma, you look at both the sympathetic and parasympathetic and figure out why that's not balanced, and then you fix the liver/gallbladder circuit," Tennant says. Since it takes eight months to replace the optic nerve, it takes longer to notice results when treating glaucoma. Also, you're also more likely to merely stabilize the disease than reverse it.
If you've enjoyed this conversation, I would strongly encourage you to join us at the ACIM conference in Orlando, Florida, November 2 through 4. The event is being held at the Florida Conference and Hotel Center. Both Tennant and I, along with many other outstanding speakers, like Steven Sinatra, Jonathon Wright and Lee Cowden, all of whom I have previously interviewed, will be there. You can see the rest of the amazing speakers on the ACIM event page.
If you are a physician and are interested in learning about how you can use the ketogenic diet and other therapies for cancer, heart disease, Lyme and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, please be sure and come. If you are a patient, there will be a separate and less expensive track on the same date and location. However, you will need to come back to this page at a later date, as the registration page for the event is still unavailable.
To learn more about how body voltage dictates health and disease, be sure to pick up a copy of Tennant's book, "Healing Is Voltage: The Handbook." You can also learn more on his website, TennantInstitute.com. There you'll also find contact information for his Dallas-based clinic.
"Again, you have to do everything it takes to make new cells work. The voltage piece is basic. If you don't do that, then nothing works. Even if you eat a perfect diet but don't have voltage in the digestive system, you're still starving to death. You have to have the voltage. You have to have the nutrition. You have to deal with the toxins. You have to do all of those," Tennant says.
So the question out there amongst the electric bioscience communitee seems to be how do we get the correct electrical power boost into our bodies.
It would appear that all seem to suggest some type micro conducting generator implanted within the body itself which could react through either programming or through wireless transmission with an outside computer source.
Our own conclusion based on over 42 years of pioneering and making positive charged colloidals made up of pure .999 Gold - Silver - Copper and Zinc; each of which oscilates at its own particular wave length and thus is attracted to certain specific conditions and parts of the body; which can be further aimed and directed according to the strength of it's ppm and in some instances according to its combination with one or more other colloidal constituents; all of which fine tune the ultimate completed formulated colloidal to its target/s. Thus negating any need for surgical implants and installing more wireless waves back and forwards throughout the body - with possible unknown complications.
Based on our own proprietary formulii, together with our strict adherance to extreme purity of the precious and primal metals, their extreme micro sized particle size ( 0.10 - 0.01 micron) and the purity of the four times steam distilled water base of these ultrafine colloidals; specific regimes can be applied and put into force that will provide the reactions required to obtain the results outlined in parts 1) and 2) of this paper ie., 20 to -25 millivolts where actually needed.
Biocelectrics Dec 11th 2017
Alchemists Workshop tm.
Institute of Holistic Alchemy
Published in New Scientist Jan 9th 2017 Bioelectricity shapes anatomy Steward Patience/www.StuartPatience.co.uk By Jason Bittel
Grow with the flow: How electricity kicks life into shape Bioelectrical signals direct blobs of cells to transform into any part of the body. Harnessing it can create freakish animals with two heads - and may spark a medical revolution
FROM the tail of the leafy sea-dragon to the toucan’s beak and the human hand, each and every one of the myriad forms assumed by living things starts out as an amorphous blob of cells. It’s one of the biggest mysteries of life: what choreographs billions of cells to create so many intricate anatomical patterns, what Charles Darwin preferred to call “endless forms most beautiful”
It’s all in the genes, of course. Except that it’s not. These days, biologists are investigating a long-overlooked aspect of shape control: the electrical signals that constantly crackle between cells. Whether in embryonic development or repairing parts of the body, bioelectricity seems have a big say in telling cells how to grow and where to go. It also appears to play an important role in the astonishing knack some creatures have to regrow lost or damaged limbs.
If we can figure out precisely how it encodes patterns of tissue formation – if we can crack the “bioelectric code” – the possibilities would be startling. Not only will we get a deeper understanding of evolutionary change, we could revolutionise tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. “Once we know how anatomy is encoded, we will be able to make shapes on demand,” says Michael Levin, a developmental biologist at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts.
We’ve known for a while that when it comes to development, the process that takes you from a single cell to a fully fledged organism, DNA only goes so far. “If you were to show someone the completed genome of a creature, and you didn’t allow them to compare it with the genome of something they were familiar with, they would have absolutely no idea what that creature would look like,” says Levin.
In that sense, DNA is less like a blueprint and more like a list of materials, only without a set of instructions for how to use them. Some direction comes in the form of chemical cues such as morphogens, which influence gene expression, and physical forces that guide migrating cells. But Levin and others think there is something else going on.
They are not the first to suspect as much. In the 1700s, Italian physician Luigi Galvani observed that dead and disarticulated frogs’ legs could be made to kick as though they were still alive when he connected them to a source of electrical charge. Later, in the 1930s, Yale University’s Harold Saxton Burr proposed that bioelectricity is the “organising principle” that kept living tissue from descending into chaos. Despite what we know about the power of electricity in the brain, however, his ideas were largely ignored – until recently.
If the idea of bioelectricity calls to mind sparks flying between neurons, you’re not far off. In fact, the brain’s electrical circuitry probably evolved from the simpler, slower bioelectrical connections found between cells elsewhere in the body. Every biological cell has a voltage, which changes depending on the balance of charged atoms called ions on either side of the cell membrane. These differences in electrical potential, governed by ion channels and pumps on cell membranes, carry information.
Salamanders can regrow limbs time and again, so why can’t we?
For a long time, we thought this intercellular chit-chat was mostly concerned with banal housekeeping duties: “Send this waste over there!”, “More fuel needed here!”. What we’re learning now, however, is that it is much more important than that, says Nestor Oviedo at the University of California, Merced. “In a way, bioelectricity tells the cells whether to divide, whether to differentiate, whether to migrate,” he says.
That much is clear from a series of experiments that give a whole new meaning to the question “heads or tails?”. The most striking have involved planarians, otherwise known as flatworms – simple, squiggly organisms that resemble a 5-millimetre-long smear of snot with crossed eyes.
Caught in two minds
Like salamanders, planarians are remarkable regenerators – slice off a tail and it will quickly grow back. But unlike salamanders, planarians can also survive decapitation. In fact, you can cut a planarian into 200 pieces and each will grow into a new, perfectly healthy whole animal over the course of a few weeks.
In 2010, Levin and Oviedo lopped off planarians’ heads and tails, and treated the remaining fragments with a chemical bath known to inhibit the flow of ions between cells. Rather than regrow replicas of the parts that had gone missing, in the normal way, these planarians grew heads on both ends. “That showed, for the first time, that these electrical synapses are important for deciding head versus tail,” says Levin.
And here’s where things get really kooky. In follow-up experiments, the team put the two-headed worms in plain water for a few weeks, with no electricity-tampering chemicals. They then hacked off each end again. When the flatworms regenerated, they didn’t revert to their original programming, but instead grew two new heads.
Tweaking electric signals cam make eyes grow in strange places
M. Scott Brauer
This doesn’t make sense, says Levin – at least not without the bioelectricity’s influence. The experiments did nothing to alter the planarians’ genomes and so, after all the chemically altered tissue is cut off, one might assume that the worm would go back to building the same body plan it has always built. But it doesn’t. Instead, the cells somehow remember the new instructions.
Even when the researchers allowed their creations to reproduce asexually, as they would in the wild, they produced offspring with two heads. So it seems that simply by altering its bioelectric signalling patterns, you can permanently rewrite an organism’s body plan.
You can also get it to regrow body parts resembling those from other species. Last year, Levin and his colleagues disrupted electrical signalling between cells in decapitated specimens of the planarian Girardia dorotocephala. Instead of making a new version of their own heads, they regenerated heads with a distinctive shape and brain anatomy that belonged to a different, albeit closely related, species.
Levin is not the only one revealing the power of bioelectricity. Min Zhao at the University of California, Davis, is investigating the role bioelectricity plays in wound healing. We previously thought that cell movements in response to injury were dictated by chemical cues. But Zhao has demonstrated that electric fields can mobilise and guide sheets of cells towards a wound.
To begin with, Zhao’s results met with some scepticism. Josef Penninger at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology in Vienna, Austria, was one of the doubters. “I was sceptical because to me, it was an entirely new concept,” he says. However, that changed when Zhao travelled to Penninger’s lab and showed him a video of sheets of skin cells migrating in the same direction when exposed to an electrical field. “I and everyone in my lab was mesmerised,” Penninger says.
Zhao understands the scepticism because there is still so much to learn. We don’t know how patterns of flickering electrical potential translate into patterns of tissue formation, for a start, although Levin suspects there are parallels with the brain or some forms of computer memory.
What is obvious, though, is that all this could have far-reaching implications for our understanding of evolutionary change. Imagine a scenario in which the lab-built two-headed flatworms were released into the wild: a biologist could stumble on them and think they were a new species, and yet they would find that these worms and their one-headed kin are genetically identical.
According to Levin, this suggests evolution may not be limited to genomic mutation. If environmental stimuli can produce worms with two heads or the heads of other species in the lab, then perhaps such things can happen in nature, too. “This is a potentially whole new way of entering body plans into the evolutionary record.”
“Bioelectrical signalling could have far-reaching implications for our picture of evolution”
Others are more cautious. We already know that the same genome can produce strikingly different body shapes, says Mary Jane West-Eberhard at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Costa Rica: it’s called phenotypic plasticity. “Consider the larval and adult forms of a butterfly,” she says. “The differences are due to gene expression.”
Levin argues that what we’re seeing with the two-headed planarians is different. “It’s a new type of phenotypic plasticity, one that resides not in the cascade of molecules that regulate gene expression but in bioelectric networks and their ability to compute and remember.”
Wresting control of this voltage-based communication might also have a big impact on human health. If we can understand how the body creates its structures in the first place, and how some creatures can repeat the process, then perhaps we can commandeer the process in humans. “At this point, it’s dreaming about what the application could be,” says Emily Bates, a geneticist at the University of Colorado in Denver.
Several developmental diseases are caused by channelopathies, or malfunctions of our ion channels. They include Timothy syndrome and Andersen-Tawil syndrome, rare diseases that cause neurological, heart, and skull and facial defects. Even fetal alcohol syndrome, which can develop if a woman drinks during her pregnancy, can produce similar defects because alcohol blocks many of the same ion channels.
Bates says it may never be possible to treat these disorders given the way they manifest in embryonic development, but she is confident that bioelectricity will have practical applications elsewhere.
It could help us tackle cancer. Earlier this year, Levin and his colleagues took advantage of a technique called optogenetics, which involves genetically engineering cells to respond to a flash of laser light. When they hacked a particular set of ion channels in this way to alter bioelectrical signalling in tadpoles that were engineered to develop cancer, the team were able to reduce the incidence of tumour formation. But they didn’t just shrink the tumours; they made more tumour cells return to their original healthy state, like the monstrous Mr Hyde turning back into mild-mannered Dr Jekyll. So instead of trying to kill cancer cells as you do with chemotherapy and radiation, which both have unpleasant side effects, you might hack bioelectricity to “normalise” them.
Rehabilitating cancer cells would be impressive; regenerating limbs or organs would be astonishing. That has to be most exciting prospect raised by our new insights into the ways that bioelectricity controls pattern formation.
Humans’ regeneration abilities pale in comparison to those of the planarian, of course, but just the ability to mend a fractured finger is an amazing feat. It relies on bone morphogenetic proteins (BMPs), which help stimulate new growth. The trouble is that the body seems to prioritise BMP production in bones that support weight, like the tibia, so lighter bones like the jaw sometimes don’t heal well.
We can make these proteins in the lab, but it’s expensive. What’s more, BMPs can cause problems when injected, such as stimulating too much bone growth – “kind of like a tumour”, says Bates. But there might be a better way. Bates has shown in fruit flies that electrical activity plays a role in the release of BMP. If you could selectively target the relevant ion channels, says Bates, you could potentially deploy a person’s own molecules to fix their bones – even if their body is stingy with BMP.
What are the chances we could regenerate human limbs, or even grow organs on demand? In 2013, working with froglets, Levin and his colleagues used a chemical cocktail to induce the flow of sodium ions, and thereby increase the biolectrical chit-chat between cells. The animals were past the age at which they can regenerate full limbs, and yet that is exactly what they did after treatment.
“The frogs were past the age where they can regrow limbs, yet they did”
“Plasticity definitely varies,” says Levin. Salamanders and planarians seem to retain their regenerative abilities for life, while tadpoles lose their superpower somewhere along the way to becoming frogs. Humans lose the power early on too. Split a fertilised egg cell down the middle when it is a few days old and it will form two genetically identical twins. Try a similar splitting feat a few weeks later, and you’ll get a tragically different result.
It’s one thing to take a trial-and-error approach to determining the bioelectrical pattern behind an ability animals already have: building a limb, for example. It’s quite another to load that pattern into animals that lack that ability. But the fact that humans have regenerative capabilities, even if only briefly, is suggestive. If we can identify what suppresses them, Levin argues, we could potentially unlock that innate repair apparatus.
Identifying such patterns and translating them into something we can use is a tall order. It’s not enough to work out bioelectricity’s secrets at the cellular level – we must decipher its rhythms and logic if we want to build a structure. If Levin is right that bioelectrical information is analogous to computer memory or brains, then tools from computational neuroscience should help. Artificial intelligence might also come into play.
“Once we crack the code, we will know precisely how we have to rewrite the default electric patterns, so as to make the anatomy we want,” says Levin. Even early sceptics like Penninger are excited by the potential: “I think it’s a field waiting to explode,” he says.
This article appeared in print under the headline “Grow with the flow”