Using novel voltage-sensitive nanoparticles, researchers have found electric fields inside cells as strong as those produced in lightning bolts. Previously, it has only been possible to measure electric fields across cell membranes, not within the main bulk of cells. It's not clear what causes these strong fields or what they might mean. But now that it's possible to measure them, researchers hope to learn about disease states such as cancer by studying these electric fields.
University of Michigan researchers led by chemistry professor Raoul Kopelman encapsulated voltage-sensitive dyes in polymer spheres just 30 nanometers in diameter. When illuminated with blue light, the voltage-sensitive dyes emit a mixture of red and green light; the exact frequency of light emitted is influenced by the strength of local electric fields, allowing the researchers to measure those fields. Testing these nanoparticles in the internal fluid of brain-cancer cells, Kopelman found electric fields as strong as 15 million volts per meter, perhaps five times stronger than the field found in a lightning bolt.