We have developed a vibrating calcium-specific electrode to measure minute extracellular calcium gradients and thus infer the patterns of calcium currents that cross the surface of various cells and tissues. Low-resistance calcium electrodes (routinely approximately 500 M omega) are vibrated by means of orthogonally stacked piezoelectrical pushers, driven by a damped square wave at an optimal frequency of 0.5 Hz. Phase-sensitive detection of the electrode signal is performed with either analogue or digital electronics. The resulting data are superimposed on a video image of the preparation that is being measured. Depending on the background calcium concentration, this new device can readily and reliably measure steady extracellular differences of calcium concentration which are as small as 0.01% with spatial and temporal resolutions of a few microns and a few seconds, respectively. The digital version can attain a noise level of less than 1 microV. In exploratory studies, we have used this device to map and measure the patterns of calcium currents that cross the surface of growing fucoid eggs and tobacco pollen, moving amebae and Dictyostelium slugs, recently fertilized ascidian eggs, as well as nurse cells of Sarcophaga follicles. This approach should be easily extendable to other specific ion currents.

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