High-contrast photographic image of droplets on a flat surface, some coagulating with each other, in shades of yellow and orange.

Image by Arteck555, Shutterstock: Biological condensates, sort of like oil droplets within water, harbor electrical imbalances that could have provided the energy needed for early life to begin.

April 28, 2023 - Chem and Duke Engineering News

The human body relies heavily on electrical charges. Lightning-like pulses of energy fly through the brain and nerves and most biological processes depend on electrical ions traveling across the membranes of each cell in our body.

These electrical signals are possible, in part, because of an imbalance in electrical charges that exists on either side of a cellular membrane. Until recently, researchers believed the membrane was an essential component to creating this imbalance. But that thought was turned on its head when researchers at Stanford University discovered that similar imbalanced electrical charges can exist between microdroplets of water and air.

Now, researchers at Duke University have discovered that these types of electric fields also exist within and around another type of cellular structure called biological condensates. Like oil droplets floating in water, these structures exist because of differences in density. They form compartments inside the cell without needing the physical boundary of a membrane.

Inspired by previous research demonstrating that microdroplets of water interacting with air or solid surfaces create tiny electrical imbalances, the researchers decided to see if the same was true for small biological condensates. They also wanted to see if these imbalances sparked reactive oxygen,  “redox,” reactions like these other systems.

Appearing on April 28 in the journal Chem, their foundational discovery could change the way researchers think about biological chemistry. It could also provide a clue as to how the first life on Earth harnessed the energy needed to arise.

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