Biological Cells Form Electric Circuits

July 5, 2016

Cell circuit. Waves of electrical activity propagate in a loop within a collection of cells engineered with electrical and optical properties. [Reprinted under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.]

The human heartbeat is produced by electrical pulses that propagate through cardiac tissue, causing rhythmic muscle contraction. Researchers have previously engineered cells to create an artificial tissue capable of producing coordinated electrical activity, and now a team has added the ability to monitor their electrical state by detecting fluorescent emission. They have also fashioned the cells into “living circuits” that might act as model systems for studying heart behavior.

Constructing electrically active tissues from their basic building blocks by genetically engineering cells allows researchers to study a “clean” system similar to the more complicated cardiac tissue. These systems let them investigate, for example, the electrical signals that lead to the potentially fatal irregular heartbeat called arrhythmia. Previously researchers have introduced ion channels—proteins that conduct ions through cell membranes—into human kidney cells to make electrically "excitable" tissues. Adam E. Cohen of Harvard University and his co-workers decided to add more ingredients to such cells, so that the electrical activity could be light-activated and easily visualized...

Read the rest of the Physics Focus article by Philip Ball. See also the original paper: H.M. McNamara, H. Zhang, C.A. Werley, and A.E. Cohen, "Optically Controlled Oscillators in an Engineered Bioelectric Tissue," Phys. Rev. X 6, 031001 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevX.6.031001.