The response of living cells to very weak electric fields: the thermal noise limit

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Science  26 Jan 1990:
Vol. 247, Issue 4941, pp. 459-462
DOI: 10.1126/science.2300806

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A physical model in which cells are considered as possible detectors of very weak periodic electric fields yields a general relation between cell size and both thermally induced fluctuations in membrane potential and the maximum change in membrane potential caused by an applied field. The simplest version of the model provides a broad-band estimate of the smallest applied electric field to which membrane macromolecules can directly respond (about 10(-3) volt per centimeter). Much smaller fields (10(-6) volt per centimeter) can be detected if there is a response in only a narrow band of frequencies or if signal averaging occurs through field-induced variation in the catalytic activity of membrane-associated enzymes. Both extensions of the simplest version remove the apparent violation of the thermal noise limit found in some experiments.

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