In addition to biochemical gradients and transcriptional networks, cell behavior is regulated by endogenous bioelectrical cues originating in the activity of ion channels and pumps, operating in a wide variety of cell types. Instructive signals mediated by changes in resting potential control proliferation, differentiation, cell shape, and apoptosis of stem, progenitor, and somatic cells. Of importance, however, cells are regulated not only by their own Vmem but also by the Vmem of their neighbors, forming networks via electrical synapses known as gap junctions. Spatiotemporal changes in Vmem distribution among nonneural somatic tissues regulate pattern formation and serve as signals that trigger limb regeneration, induce eye formation, set polarity of whole-body anatomical axes, and orchestrate craniofacial patterning. New tools for tracking and functionally altering Vmem gradients in vivo have identified novel roles for bioelectrical signaling and revealed the molecular pathways by which Vmem changes are transduced into cascades of downstream gene expression. Because channels and gap junctions are gated posttranslationally, bioelectrical networks have their own characteristic dynamics that do not reduce to molecular profiling of channel expression (although they couple functionally to transcriptional networks). The recent data provide an exciting opportunity to crack the bioelectric code, and learn to program cellular activity at the level of organs, not only cell types. The understanding of how patterning information is encoded in bioelectrical networks, which may require concepts from computational neuroscience, will have transformative implications for embryogenesis, regeneration, cancer, and synthetic bioengineering.
© 2014 Levin. This article is distributed by The American Society for Cell Biology under license from the author(s). Two months after publication it is available to the public under an Attribution–Noncommercial–Share Alike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0).