Cells as batteries: investigating the endogenous extracellular electric field

We have discovered that cells can generate electric fields to change how they interact with their environment. This project will explore where this electric field comes from, and how it influences the behaviour of the cell itself, and those around it. 

Start date
1 July 2021
Three years
Application deadline
Funding source
The University of Surrey, Project-led Studentship Award
Funding information

Funding covers: 

  • Full UK/EU tuition fee 
  • Stipend at £15,285 p.a. (2020/21) 
  • RTSG of £1,000 p.a. 
  • Personal Computer (provided by the department).


Cells have long been characterised by their behaviour as electrical entities; muscle and nerve cells rely on ion currents to function, whilst other cells exploit slower changes in transmembrane potential to regulate cellular processes. However, the only known extracellular electric parameter is the zeta potential - the electrokinetic potential measured about a nanometre from the cell surface, which determines whether particle solutions coagulate or remain dispersed. Since this arises from surface charge in materials science, the same is assumed for cells. Unlike inert objects, cells generate membrane potentials as well as zeta; these are considered to be entirely independent. We have found that cells exhibit small, internally-generated electric fields, proportional to the membrane potential, which extends into the extracellular space, altering the zeta potential and potentially altering the way cells interact with other cells, ions and proteins. 

Though the presence of the electric field has been demonstrated, there are many questions to be answered about its origin and significance. This studentship will seek to address questions such as: 

What is the origin of the extracellular field? The mechanism by which the membrane potential exerts influence outside the cell is not yet identified. We will develop an advanced analytical model of cell behaviour comprising all of the measured electrical parameters to understand how the effect works. 

How does the effect manifest in cells in culture? We will measure the effect in tissues in culture and in tissue slices. Is the electric field amplified using cell ensembles? We will investigate using planar microelectrodes.    

Does the field play a role in cell functionality? We will investigate whether changing the membrane potential changes how cells interact, and whether this affects cell function, by altering the extracellular concentration of ions and biomolecules at the cell’s exterior surface, or modulating molecular trafficking across the membrane. 

Related links
Centre for Biomedical Engineering

Eligibility criteria

First class undergraduate degree, or Distinction at MSc. The highly interdisciplinary nature of the project means that it may be suitable for graduates in Biomedical Engineering, Biomedical Sciences, Physics, Medical Physics, Cell Biology or other related discipline. Some experience with electrophysiology would be useful, but is not a prerequisite. 

This studentship is only for UK/EU applicants. 

IELTS requirements: If English is not your first language, you will be required to have an IELTS Academic of 6.5 or above (or equivalent), with no sub-test score below 6. 

How to apply

Please apply through the Biomedical Engineering PhD, stating the title of the project on the application.

Application deadline

Contact details

Michael Hughes
19 AA 02
Telephone: +44 (0)1483 686775
E-mail: M.Hughes@surrey.ac.uk

Centre for Biomedical Engineering 

The Centre for Biomedical Engineering at the University of Surrey is the oldest such unit in England, having been established in 1966. It has a broad range of research expertise, from tissue modelling to human movement analysis, biomedical signal processing, biomaterials and cell electrophysiology. Since 1999 it has hosted world-leading research into the electrical properties of cells in disease and cell biology. 


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