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Bioessays. 2003 Aug;25(8):759-66.

Left/right, up/down: the role of endogenous electrical fields as directional signals in development, repair and invasion.

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  • 1Department of Biological Sciences, Purdue University, West Lafayette, USA. U


A fundamental aspect of biological systems is their spatial organization. In development, regeneration and repair, directional signals are necessary for the proper placement of the components of the organism. Likewise, pathogens that invade other organisms rely on directional signals to target vulnerable areas. It is widely understood that chemical gradients are important directional signals in living systems. Less well recognized are electrical fields, which can also provide directional information. Small, steady electrical fields can directly guide cell movement and growth and can generate chemical gradients of charged macromolecules against the leveling action of diffusion. At the site of a lesion in an ion-transporting epithelium, for example, a substantial electrical field is instantly generated and may extend over many cell diameters. There are numerous other situations in which relatively long-range electrical fields have been shown to exist naturally. Recently, there has been substantial progress in identifying specific processes that are controlled, to some extent, by these endogenous electrical fields. This review highlights these recent data and discusses possible mechanisms by which the fields might affect biological processes.

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