Review: ‘The Spark of Life – Electricity in the Human Body’

Lucie Hughes (SU, U6) reviews the Biology and Natural History Talk: ‘The Spark of Life – Electricity in the Human Body’. The talk was given by Professor Frances Ashcroft FRS who is a Royal Society GlaxoSmithKline Research Professor at the University Laboratory of Physiology, Oxford.

At the beginning of her lecture, Professor Ashcroft stated that ‘ion channels are the spark of life’. The talk included many interesting references to the effects that blockage or stimulation of ion channels has on different organisms. 

For example, in 1774, some of Cook’s crew ate puffer fish, which contains tetrodotoxin (TTX), a toxin that binds to sodium ion channels. The crew then fed the remains of the fish to the pigs kept on board. The crew experienced numbness and shortness of breath, and the pigs died. This is a typical case of TTX poisoning from puffers, which usually have little or no toxin in the flesh but lethal concentrations in the skin, intestines and liver.

Other examples included the naked mole rat, which has evolved a mutation which makes it insensitive to the acid which accumulates in their burrows where there is a very low concentration of carbon dioxide.

Professor Ashcroft’s own research has focused on the causes and treatment of neonatal diabetes, a rare form caused by a mutation in the KATP ion channels which prevent them from closing and insulin being secreted. Children affected by neonatal diabetes have very high blood glucose levels. A drug called sulfonylurea has been made that closes the KATP channels allowing blood glucose levels to be lowered.

Professor Ashcroft’s extremely interesting and thought-provoking talk convinced us that ion channels really are ‘the spark of life’.

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