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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2017 Jul 18;114(29):7525-7530. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1701409114. Epub 2017 Jul 3.

Clusters of calcium release channels harness the Ising phase transition to confine their elementary intracellular signals.

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Department of Mathematics, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1TH, United Kingdom.
Laboratory of Cardiovascular Science, National Institute on Aging, NIH, Baltimore, MD 21224.
Laboratory of Cardiovascular Science, National Institute on Aging, NIH, Baltimore, MD 21224


Intracellular Ca signals represent a universal mechanism of cell function. Messages carried by Ca are local, rapid, and powerful enough to be delivered over the thermal noise. A higher signal-to-noise ratio is achieved by a cooperative action of Ca release channels such as IP3 receptors or ryanodine receptors arranged in clusters (release units) containing a few to several hundred release channels. The channels synchronize their openings via Ca-induced Ca release, generating high-amplitude local Ca signals known as puffs in neurons and sparks in muscle cells. Despite the positive feedback nature of the activation, Ca signals are strictly confined in time and space by an unexplained termination mechanism. Here we show that the collective transition of release channels from an open to a closed state is identical to the phase transition associated with the reversal of magnetic field in an Ising ferromagnet. Our simple quantitative criterion closely predicts the Ca store depletion level required for spark termination for each cluster size. We further formulate exact requirements that a cluster of release channels should satisfy in any cell type for our mapping to the Ising model and the associated formula to remain valid. Thus, we describe deterministically the behavior of a system on a coarser scale (release unit) that is random on a finer scale (release channels), bridging the gap between scales. Our results provide exact mapping of a nanoscale biological signaling model to an interacting particle system in statistical physics, making the extensive mathematical apparatus available to quantitative biology.


calcium; calcium spark; excitation–contraction coupling; heart; ryanodine receptor

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