Your cells crackle with electric signals that guide embryonic development and heal wounds. If we can learn to tweak this “bioelectric code”, we might be able to prevent cancer and even grow new limbs
22 February 2023
WHEN Dany Adams first played back the footage, there was nothing to see. The tadpole had developed enough of a tail to swim out of shot, leaving only a blank screen. “Oh well,” she remembers thinking. “Another one bites the dust.” But the camera had been running all night, so she dutifully rewound the tape on the off chance it had caught something interesting. Interesting didn’t begin to describe what she saw. “My jaw dropped, right to the floor,” she says.
The video showed a frog embryo busily dividing to become a tadpole. Then, this tiny, smooth blob began to light up. Electrical patterns flashed a series of unmistakable images across it: two ears, two eyes, jaws, a nose. These ghostly projections didn’t last long. But 2 or 3 hours later, exactly where they had glimmered, the real things appeared: two ears, two eyes, jaws, a nose. Here, at last, was the proof she had been after in her role on a decade-long project undertaken by Michael Levin at Tufts University in Massachusetts. It showed that electrical patterns provide a blueprint that shapes a developing body, coordinating where to put its face and grow its other features.
Astounding as this sounds, it is just one of many roles that electricity plays in biology. There is mounting evidence that, as well as instructing development, electricity influences everything from wound healing to cancer. “Bioelectric gradients and communication are fundamental to being alive,” says Levin. If we can map this “electrome” and learn to decode it, some astonishing consequences for our health would only be the start.
If you have ever spared a …