Singing the Body Electric

We’re used to thinking of our bodies as bio-chemical systems  that our cells are maintained by chemical processes. When we visit a doctor, the treatment usually comes in the form of a pill, something to change our chemistry. What about electricity? What role does it play in biological systems? The recent discovery of electric bacteria, that feed on electricity rather than sugars has made many biologists rethink the question of, what is life?

The electric bacterium Geobacter

The role that electricity plays in the functioning of every cell was first described by J. C. Bose in his Comparative Electrophysiology. Earlier, Mary Shelley speculated that a bolt of electricity could bring the dead back to life. We accept that electricity is key to the operation of our central nervous system. But to suggest that every living cell resembles an electric generator? That our bodies work primarily by electricity?

Yet the flow of electricity in our bodies is what makes life. Kenneth Nealson at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, a researcher into electric bacteria told a New Scientists reporter,

Life’s very clever. It figures out how to suck electrons out of everything we eat and keep them under control. Electrons must flow in order for energy to be gained. This is why when someone suffocates another person they are dead within minutes. You have stopped the supply of oxygen, so the electrons can no longer flow.

Our bodies contain hosts of electric bacteria. Some, dubbed microbial nanowires, are long bacteria that shuttle electrons from cell to cell. Researchers at Aarhus University in Denmark discovered electric bacteria that form daisy chains which can carry electrons over several centimetres – a huge distance for a bacterium only 3 or 4 microns long.  Zarath Summers and others at the University of Minnesota were able to grow a colony of bacteria by feeding them only electricity.

These discoveries may well change the way we think about living systems such as our bodies. Our physical and emotional health may not necessarily depend on the balance of various chemicals in our bodies but on the way that electricity flows.