Scientists Find Direct Link Between Electrical Fields in the Atmosphere and Living Organisms

Electrical fields in the atmosphere and those found in living organisms may have more in common than we realize.l. (Photo: John Fowler [CC by 2.0]/Flickr)

Researchers studying the electrical fields generated by living organisms have made the surprising discovery that they nearly mimic those present in the Earth's atmosphere.

In a new study published in the International Journal of Biometeorology, the team of researchers from Tel Aviv University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Alaska say the electrical similarities are essentially the same across both vertebrates and invertebrates.

"We show that the electrical activity in many living organisms — from zooplankton in the oceans, to sharks and even in our brains — is very similar to the electrical fields we measure and study in the atmosphere from global lightning activity," professor Colin Price of TAU's Porter School of the Environment and Earth Sciences said in a statement.

Scientists have long known that animals use electrical currents to send signals through the nervous system. Our cells in particular are specialized to conduct electricity, utilizing ions from charged elements like sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium to control currents. While the electricity generated by animals occurs at extremely low frequencies (up to only 50 hertz), it's enough to produce 100 watts of power at rest.

In the study, the researchers theorize that the cells of living organisms likely evolved to mimic the electrical fields of the natural environment over billions of years.

"We hypothesize that over evolutionary timescales living organisms adapted and evolved to actually use the electricity in the environment — global lightning," Price added. "This has likely not changed over billions of years and is similar to the evolution of our eyes, which evolved using the sunlight nature gave us."

The body electric

Discoveries like this one are important to the medical community as it may open new avenues for treating illnesses such as epilepsy and Parkinson's, both of which are related to abnormalities in the body's electrical activity. A 2017 study published in Epilepsia on the frequency of epileptic seizures in relation to the weather, for instance, discovered an uptick in occurrences when atmospheric pressure was low. The risk decreased during times of high atmospheric pressure.

"Our review of previous studies revealed that lightning-related fields may have positive medical applications related to our biological clock (circadian rhythms), spinal cord injuries and maybe other bodily functions related to electrical activity in our bodies," Price said. "The connection between the ever-present electromagnetic fields, between lightning in the atmosphere and human health, may have huge implications in the future for various treatments related to electrical abnormalities in our bodies."

While the study comprised a retroactive review of previous links between animals and atmospheric lightning, the research team says the next step will be to design new experiments to further explore the potential benefits.

"One new experiment we are now planning is to see how these fields may impact the rate of photosynthesis in plants," Price added.