I Sing the Bioelectric: Long-Distance Electrical Signals Guide Cell Growth and Repair

Genes turn on, and genes turn off. Again and again, the genes that together comprise the human genome receive electrical signals that can direct when they should be active—and when they should be dormant. This intricate pattern of signals is a part of what guides an embryonic stem cell to grow and mature into any one of the many types of cells that make up the human body.

Bioelectric signals sent between cells—even cells at great distance from each other—have been found to carry important instructions relating to the growth, development and repair of organs such as the brain.

Bioelectric signals sent between cells—even cells at great distance from each other—have been found to carry important instructions relating to the growth, development and repair of organs such as the brain.

These electrical signals that guide cell growth have long been described as molecular ‘switches.’ But now, scientists at Tufts University have decoded these electrical signals—and discovered that they are far more complex than we had ever imagined.

Reporting in today’s issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, lead author Michael Levin and his Tufts research team have mapped the electrical signals transmitted between cells during development, and found that not only do these signals direct when a gene should be switched on, they also carry their own set of instructions, crucial to cellular development. Using the example of brain formation, Levin explained in today’s news release:

“We’ve found that cells communicate, even across long distances in the embryo, using bioelectrical signals, and they use this information to know where to form a brain and how big that brain should be. The signals are not just necessary for normal development; they are instructive.”

Instead of a molecular switchboard, an analogy that some have used to describe these bioelectrical signals, Levin likened the system to a computer. The signals themselves act like software programs, delivering instructions and information between cells at precisely the right time—even cells at great distance from one another.

Using tadpole embryos as a model, the team identified that the pattern of changes in voltage levels between cell membranes, called cellular resting potential, is the source of these bioelectrical signals, which are crucial to cellular development.

Specifically, the team mapped the changing voltage levels in embryonic stem cells in regards to the formation of the brain. In addition to discovering that these bioelectric signals instruct the formation of organs such as the brain, their discovery also hints at how scientists could manipulate these signals to repair tissues or organs that have been damaged—or even to grow new, healthy tissues.

“This latest research also demonstrated molecular techniques for ‘hijacking’ this bioelectric communication to force the body to make new brain tissue at other locations and to fix genetic defects that cause brain malformation,” Levin explained. “This means we may be able to induce growth of new brain tissue to address birth defects or injury, which is very exciting for regenerative medicine.”

In addition, the authors argue that modifying the bioelectrical signals to generate tissue—rather than modifying the genes themselves—may reduce the risk of adverse effects that may crop up by modifying genes directly.

While it’s early days for this work, Levin and his team foresee ways to apply this knowledge directly to medicine, for example by developing electricity-modulating drugs—which they call ‘electroceuticals’—that can repair damaged or defective tissue, and induce tissue growth.

Stem Cell Stories that Caught our Eye: Skin Cells to Brain Cells in One Fell Swoop, #WeAreResearch Goes Viral, and Genes Helps Stem Cells Fight Disease

Here are some stem cell stories that caught our eye this past week. Some are groundbreaking science, others are of personal interest to us, and still others are just fun.

Building a Better Brain Cell. Thanks to advances in stem cell biology, scientists have found ways to turn adult cells, such as skin cells, back into cells that closely resemble embryonic stem cells. They can then coax them into becoming virtually any cell in the body.

But scientists have more recently begun to devise ways to change cells from one type into another without first having to go back to a stem cell-like state. And now, a team from Washington University in St. Louis has done exactly that.

As reported this week in New Scientist, researcher Andrew Yoo and his team used microRNAs—a type of ‘signaling molecule’—to reprogram adult human skin cells into medium spiny neurons(MSNs), the type of brain cell involved in the deadly neurodegenerative condition, Huntington’s disease.

“Within four weeks the skin cells had changed into MSNs. When put into the brains of mice, the cells survived for at least six months and made connections with the native tissue,” explained New Scientist’s Clare Wilson.

This process, called ‘transdifferentiation,’ has the potential to serve as a faster, potentially safer alternative to creating stem cells.

#WeAreResearch Puts a Face on Science. The latest research breakthroughs often focus on the science itself, and deservedly so. But exactly who performed that research, the close-knit team who spent many hours at the lab bench and together worked to solve a key scientific problem, can sometimes get lost in the shuffle.

#WeAreResearch submission from The Thomson Lab at the University of California, San Francisco. This lab uses optogenetics, and RNAseq to probe cell fate decisions.

#WeAreResearch submission from The Thomson Lab at the University of California, San Francisco. This lab uses optogenetics, and RNAseq to probe cell fate decisions.

Enter #WeAreResearch, a new campaign led by the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) that seeks to show off science’s more ‘human side.’

Many California-based stem cell teams have participated—including CIRM grantee Larry Goldstein and his lab!

Check out the entire collection of submissions and, if you’re a member of a lab, submit your own. Prizes await the best submissions—so now’s your chance to get creative.

New Genes Help Stem Cells Fight Infection. Finally, UCLA scientists have discovered how stem cells ‘team up’ with a newly discovered set of genes in order to stave off infection.

Reporting in the latest issue of the journal Current Biology, and summarized in a UCLA news release, Julian Martinez-Agosto and his team describe how two genes—adorably named Yorkie and Scalloped—set in motion a series of events, a molecular Rube Goldberg device, that transforms stem cells into a type of immune system cell.

Importantly, the team found that without these genes, the wrong kind of cell gets made—meaning that these genes play a central role in the body’s healthy immune response.

Mapping out the complex signaling patterns that exist between genes and cells is crucial as researchers try and find ways to, in this case, improve the body’s immune response by manipulating them.