Epithelial layers in developing embryos are known to drive ion currents through themselves that will, in turn, generate small electric fields within the embryo. We hypothesized that the movement of migratory embryonic cells might be guided by such fields, and report here that embryonic quail somite fibroblast motility can be strongly influenced by small DC electric fields. These cells responded to such fields in three ways: (a) The cells migrated towards the cathodal end of the field by extending lamellipodia in that direction. The threshold field strength for this galvanotaxis was between 1 and 10 mV/mm when the cells were cultured in plasma. (b) The cells oriented their long axes perpendicular to the field lines. The threshold field strength for this response for a 90-min interval in the field was 150 mV/mm in F12 medium and between 50 and 100 mV/mm in plasma. (c) The cells elongated under the influence of field strengths of 400 mV/mm and greater. These fibroblasts were therefore able to detect a voltage gradient at least as low as 0.2 mV across their width. Electric fields of at least 10-fold larger in magnitude than this threshold field have been detected in vivo in at least one vertebrate thus far, so we believe that these field effects encompass a physiological range.

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