Pattern formation, as occurs during embryogenesis or regeneration, is the crucial link between genotype and the functions upon which selection operates. Even cancer and aging can be seen as challenges to the continuous physiological processes that orchestrate individual cell activities toward the anatomical needs of an organism. Thus, the origin and maintenance of complex biological shape is a fundamental question for cell, developmental, and evolutionary biology, as well as for biomedicine. It has long been recognized that slow bioelectrical gradients can control cell behaviors and morphogenesis. Here, I review recent molecular data that implicate endogenous spatio-temporal patterns of resting potentials among non-excitable cells as instructive cues in embryogenesis, regeneration, and cancer. Functional data have implicated gradients of resting potential in processes such as limb regeneration, eye induction, craniofacial patterning, and head-tail polarity, as well as in metastatic transformation and tumorigenesis. The genome is tightly linked to bioelectric signaling, via ion channel proteins that shape the gradients, downstream genes whose transcription is regulated by voltage, and transduction machinery that converts changes in bioelectric state to second-messenger cascades. However, the data clearly indicate that bioelectric signaling is an autonomous layer of control not reducible to a biochemical or genetic account of cell state. The real-time dynamics of bioelectric communication among cells are not fully captured by transcriptomic or proteomic analyses, and the necessary-and-sufficient triggers for specific changes in growth and form can be physiological states, while the underlying gene loci are free to diverge. The next steps in this exciting new field include the development of novel conceptual tools for understanding the anatomical semantics encoded in non-neural bioelectrical networks, and of improved biophysical tools for reading and writing electrical state information into somatic tissues. Cracking the bioelectric code will have transformative implications for developmental biology, regenerative medicine, and synthetic bioengineering.
© 2014 The Author. The Journal of Physiology © 2014 The Physiological Society.