Artificial Cells: Models Of Eel Cells Suggest Electrifying Possibilities
Eel is a fish that generates electric current
Applying modern engineering design tools to one of the basic units of life, they argue that artificial cells could be built that not only replicate the electrical behavior of electric eel cells but in fact improve on them. Artificial versions of the eel’s electricity generating cells could be developed as a power source for medical implants and other tiny devices
Electric eels channel the output of thousands of specialized cells called electrocytes to generate electric potentials of up to 600 volts, according to biologists. The mechanism is similar to nerve cells. The arrival of a chemical signal triggers the opening of highly selective channels in a cell membrane causing sodium ions to flow in and potassium ions to flow out. The ion swap increases the voltage across the membrane, which causes even more channels to open. Past a certain point the process becomes self-perpetuating, resulting in an electric pulse traveling through the cell. The channels then close and alternate paths open to “pump” the ions back to their initial concentrations during a “resting” state
The individual components of such artificial cells—including a pair of artificial membranes separated by an insulated partition and ion channels that could be created by engineering proteins—already have been demonstrated by other researchers. Like the natural counterpart, the cell’s energy source would be adenosine triphosphate (ATP), synthesized from the body’s sugars and fats using tailored bacteria or mitochondria.
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