The spark of life
What do a thoroughbred American quarter horse known as Impressive, a shivering pig, a herd of 'fainting' goats, a child with cystic fibrosis and a person with a rare inherited form of diabetes have in common? The answer is that all of them have genetic errors in a particular kind of protein, known as an ion channel, that regulates the electrical activity of the body. Humans are electrical machines and your ability to read this page and to understand its message, to laugh and cry, to see and hear, and to move your limbs, is due to the electrical events taking place in the nerve cells in your brain and the muscle cells in your limbs. And that electrical activity is initiated and regulated by your ion channels. These little-known proteins are essential for every aspect of our lives, from consciousness to fighting infection, from sexual attraction to the beating of our hearts. They are also used as weapons of warfare by the immune system and by bacteria. It is therefore not surprising that a multitude of medicinal drugs work by regulating the activity of ion channels, and that impaired ion channel function is responsible for many human and animal diseases. This lecture charts the development of our understanding of animal electricity, explains how it is generated by ion channels, and discusses the ways that ion channels regulates our lives and the dramatic consequences when things go wrong. In brief, its aim is to 'sing the body electric'.