An optical microscope image of a yeast cell (the round feature to the right) on top of the micron-sized detector used in the studies. The image is blurred because the cell is so small that large magnification is required in order to obtain the image. (Credit: Image courtesy of Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council)
Researchers have made a breakthrough by detecting the electrical equivalent of a living cell’s last gasp. The work takes them a step closer to both seeing the ‘heartbeat’ of a living cell and a new way to test drugs.
To stay alive, individual biological cells must transfer electrically charged particles, called ions across their cell membranes. This flow produces an electrical current that could, in principle, be detected with sensitive enough equipment. The recognition of such electrical activity would provide a kind of ‘cellular cardiogram’, allowing the daily functioning of the cell to be monitored in a similar way to a cardiograph showing the workings of a human heart.
The team detected the smallest electrical signal yet detected from a living cell, around 100 times smaller than anything previously detected. It added up to an electrical current of just 10 moving electrons.