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Electrogenic humans

Monday, 13 October, 2008

Electrogenesis refers to the production of electrical activity in living tissue. In a sense, we humans are already electrogenic; each of our brain cells (neurons) produces about 70 millivolts of electric potential and our muscle cells about 95 millivolts. They do this by using chemical energy (in the form of ATP) to power electrogenic pumps, most commonly the Na+/K+ ATPase (sodium-potassium transporter, but usually abbreviated to NAKA)- this enzyme is so common in the massive human brain and muscles that it is responsible for using up to 40% of our resting energy consumption (and the man who discovered it, Jens Skou, was awarded the 1997 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. This pumps out 3 Na+ atoms in exchange for 2 K+ atoms. This is a good deal, because three positively charged ions (cations) are exchanged for two, which causes the electric potential to drop below zero. With enough of these going, it will drop give the cell a slight charge.

But some marine creatures really excel in this aspect, with specialised cells called electrocytes dedicated entirely to the production of an electric potential, which they use primarily to communicate and sense prey but also to stun other animals (prey or predators). These include the electric rays (Torpediniformes) which can produce a potential of around 200 volts, the electric catfish (Malapteruridae) which are capable of producing 350 volts and, perhaps one the best known (erroneously as the electric eel), the electric knifefish (Electrophorus electricus), capable of a shock of up to 600 volts (Mermelstein et al, 2000). The electric knifefish/eel has been proposed as next on the list of animals to have their genome sequenced (Albert et al, 2008), which I think will speed this sort of research along quite nicely.

These animals have a specialised organ, called (of all things) the electric organ, which is made up of thousands of these electrocytes (sometimes also called electroplaques or electroplaxes) organised in series (with each series stacked in parallel to sum currents), with each cell producing a potential about 150mV (actually, there are two potentials, one 65mV and the other 85mV. For details, read Jian Xu’s scientific paper, which I link to below). That doesn’t seem like much, but stack ten thousand of these in one organ and, if all those cells discharge at one, it will produce a 1500V electric organ discharge (EOD).

Just last month, researchers Jian Xu from Yale University and David Lavan from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (Maryland, USA) published a paper in Nature Nanotechnology outlining a theoretical upgrade to the electrocyte, able to produce 28% more power and to use chemical energy to do it with 38% greater efficiency. It was theoretical, however, but they will probably try it (or somebody else will) for real some time soon. And probably the electric fishes themselves will be slowly evolving towards this outcome themselves.

In the meantime, we can consider how awesome it would be to generate an electric current ourselves. Most in the Western world are experiencing an obesity epidemic, so we have plenty of chemical energy to spare for producing an electric potential. The most likely and practical option will be to have a small patch of electrogenic cells surrounding any electronic implant, like the prosthetic arm and cybernetic implants we will all have by that stage. They may also prove useful in biological pacemakers, if the heart was surrounded with electrogenic cells to provide impulses (though, it would probably prove easier to just repair the heart).

More interestingly (at least in my opinion), we could genetically engineer (or implant) our very own electric organ. If the electric organ was just below the skin of our chest and arms, but very well insulated except for at ends of our fingers, we’d literally have the full current and voltage of the electric organ at our fingertips. We’d also need to wire up the brain control mechanisms of this organ, specifically some brainstem nucleus to act as a pacemaker to ensure all those electrocytes fire together, so that we could control when the electric shocks occur.

Now, before we get all excited about throwing lightning bolts, let me first remind everyone of how physics works back in the real world. As I said, bioelectrogenesis has evolved only in aquatic organisms, because water is a good conductor. Air, on the other hand, is a damn good insulator until a phenomena known as dielectric breakdown occurs (this is when the air ionises to become conductive). The dielectric strength of air is 3,000,000 volts per metre (3MV/m), but greater on hot or humid days. This means that to throw an arc discharge (i.e. a zap of lightning) across on metre of air, you require 3 million volts. You can throw a much smaller arc with much less, as anyone who as zapped themselves with static electricity on a doorknob will know (noting Paschen’s law, which shows that even a small voltage of 500V will be sufficient to cross a gap of half a centimetre). If I hold my thumb and forefinger just a centimetre apart, I will still require 30,000 volts to throw an arc between them. To produce that with a current of 1 amp (which probably won’t be necessary, but let’s assume that for the sake of ease of calculation) would require about 150,000 cells (assuming each produces 200mV), which is far more than the electric eel has (and, mind you, the electric eel dedicates about 80% of its 25kg body to its electric organs, and still only manages about 4000 cells per series).  So in other words, you’re not going to be able to throw lightning (which makes sense, because we don’t even have a practical ‘lightning gun‘ yet, let alone a biological version).

But I don’t really care. I’d settle for being able to make a lightbulb glow or give somebody an annoying shock if they irritated me (essentially a biological electroschock weapon). So, where’s my bioelectrogenesis?

[Hat tip to fayyaad at Utter Insanity for inspiring me to try to explain how human electrogeneration is possible and bringing my attention to this recent news]

14 comments

  1. Very nice post…thanks for the linkage!


  2. Pretty good idea and based completely on fact!

    Humans generate minuet electricity anyway it is barely enough to register however it is generated constantly and is barely used for anything it is mainly kept in reserve to help out the heart.


  3. Oh i forgot something!

    If you could do the electrical organ implant into a human body would you also be able to insulate the body internally and externally.

    A far more easier concept is the iron man thing where you could have implants that siphon some electricity from the body and use it along with other energy from a small capacitor to charge then unleash in a burst!

    Another iron man related idea which could help hear is the repulsor blast which is basically an explosion without an explosion. Kind of like a helicopter taking off air is pushed down and away sort of like a force field. This would be useful for a way to keep the energy output low so the charge doesn’t kill the person using it.

    Also what would you use the electricity for? Because it seems rather useless as the only advantage is you could charge up electrical devices anywhere which is pretty useless.

    I am mainly in the field of Magnokenesis and human exoskeleton research. Basically i am studying magnetic powers and long term strength enhancements.However if i ever hear of a electric organ transplant you will be the first to know!


  4. Humans generate minuet electricity anyway it is barely enough to register however it is generated constantly and is barely used for anything it is mainly kept in reserve to help out the heart.

    That’s not really accurate.

    Humans generate electrical potentials in all cells, but especially in muscle and nerve cells. These cells utilise this electrical potential to do things, like for muscles to contract or for nerve cells to fire. To say that our biological electricity generation is ‘barely used’ is inaccurate.

    If you could do the electrical organ implant into a human body would you also be able to insulate the body internally and externally.

    I think so. The electric eels, and other animals, have evolved a solution to this problem, so it is possible at least.

    A far more easier concept is the iron man thing where you could have implants that siphon some electricity from the body and use it along with other energy from a small capacitor to charge then unleash in a burst!

    That’s certainly possible, but if you are going to go to the effort of storing the required electricity in an external device, you may as well charge it up from a wall socket or batteries rather than from your own body. It would be far faster and easier too.

    Another iron man related idea which could help hear is the repulsor blast which is basically an explosion without an explosion. Kind of like a helicopter taking off air is pushed down and away sort of like a force field. This would be useful for a way to keep the energy output low so the charge doesn’t kill the person using it.

    It would be a cool thing to have, but that seems like an air pressure wave rather than anything to do with electric fields.

    Also what would you use the electricity for? Because it seems rather useless as the only advantage is you could charge up electrical devices anywhere which is pretty useless.

    I think the first uses will be for implantable medical devices, like pacemakers and blood glucose monitors. You can’t just replace the batteries for these without having surgery, and so it’s not useless to be able to charge these. But you’re correct that charging other electrical devices would be mostly useless, as the output power would be too low.

    I was mostly considering here the possibility of using electricity for self-defence, as the electric eel does. That is, being able to throw a spark, or give an assailant an electric shock. Sort of like having a built-in biological Taser, to put it another way.


  5. Have you guys seen this?


    • I have now, and I don’t believe any of it to be true. Extraordinary powers like that require extraordinary evidence before I can believe they are real.


  6. When I realized how possible putting electric organs in humans seems to be, I knew I couldn’t have been the first person to think of this. Moreover, it seems likely that someone with extensive background in the appropriate fields must have realized this potential by now as well. Has anyone come across serious research or attempts at achieving this?

    Everything I found out about electric organs prior to finding this article–electrogenic fish (especially the Electric Torpedo Ray and the Electric ‘Eel’), electrocytes, human muscle and nerve cells, sodium-potassium ion exchange, ATP’s various roles, etc.–agrees with the facts presented here.

    As far as what I would do with this ability, I’d like to be able to produce a sustained low voltage flow (5-10V) to a single electronic device. This could be all sorts of things; an insulin pump, sensors monitoring various bodily processes, an on-board computer, external robotic sensory devices, or even a USB charger.

    So again, if anyone finds any legitimate research out there on this stuff, I’d love to hear about it.


  7. I have also been pondering this for a novel I`ve been writing. I want to figure out a way to extract electricity using a farrow magnetic tattoo to channel the energy into a capacitor.Since im not a scientist or doctor, I was not sure of what effects a farrow magnetic tatto ink might have on the human body. I`ve also read that 40% of our food is turned into Bioelecticity. would`nt ib great if that energy could be gained with a solar receptor then stored in the body for later use. Just another crazy ideal I had.


  8. Can electric eel help humans to produce electric power for stepping into a new world?


  9. […] circles before. In 2008, before 3D printing turbocharged tissue engineering, the blog Human Enhancement and Biopolitics painted a picture of what it might look […]


  10. pretty sure this will never happen- cause if it did in any usable form you could charge up your own electric car…and ‘they’ would never allow that ;)


  11. […] circles before. In 2008, before 3D printing turbocharged tissue engineering, the blog Human Enhancement and Biopolitics painted a picture of what it might look […]


  12. When can we expect human trials of this nano and bio technology. I’ll be first to sign up.


  13. トラベルケース EZ CADDY T 7025 詳細旅行に行くとき便利です!特に海外などへいく場合に活躍間違いなし!自分のクラブを持っていくのが面倒で貸しクラブ。 ルブタン ローラーボーイ



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