Activation of Signaling Cascades by Weak Extremely Low Frequency Electromagnetic Fields

Cell Physiol Biochem. 2017;43(4):1533-1546. doi: 10.1159/000481977. Epub 2017 Oct 16.


Background/aims: Results from recent studies suggest that extremely low frequency magnetic fields (ELF-MF) interfere with intracellular signaling pathways related to proliferative control. The mitogen-activated protein kinases (MAPKs), central signaling components that regulate essentially all stimulated cellular processes, include the extracellular signal-regulated kinases 1/2 (ERK1/2) that are extremely sensitive to extracellular cues. Anti-phospho-ERK antibodies serve as a readout for ERK1/2 activation and are able to detect minute changes in ERK stimulation. The objective of this study was to explore whether activation of ERK1/2 and other signaling cascades can be used as a readout for responses of a variety of cell types, both transformed and non-transformed, to ELF-MF.

Methods: We applied ELF-MF at various field strengths and time periods to eight different cell types with an exposure system housed in a tissue culture incubator and followed the phosphorylation of MAPKs and Akt by western blotting.

Results: We found that the phosphorylation of ERK1/2 is increased in response to ELF-MF. However, the phosphorylation of ERK1/2 is likely too low to induce ELF-MF-dependent proliferation or oncogenic transformation. The p38 MAPK was very slightly phosphorylated, but JNK or Akt were not. The effect on ERK1/2 was detected for exposures to ELF-MF strengths as low as 0.15 µT and was maximal at ∼10 µT. We also show that ERK1/2 phosphorylation is blocked by the flavoprotein inhibitor diphenyleneiodonium, indicating that the response to ELF-MF may be exerted via NADP oxidase similar to the phosphorylation of ERK1/2 in response to microwave radiation.

Conclusions: Our results further indicate that cells are responsive to ELF-MF at field strengths much lower than previously suspected and that the effect may be mediated by NADP oxidase. However, the small increase in ERK1/2 phosphorylation is probably insufficient to affect proliferation and oncogenic transformation. Therefore, the results cannot be regarded as proof of the involvement of ELF-MF in cancer in general or childhood leukemia in particular.

Keywords: ELF-MF; ERK; Extremely low frequency magnetic fields; MAPK; Mitogen-activated protein kinases; NADH oxidase.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Line
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Electromagnetic Fields* / adverse effects
  • Enzyme Activation*
  • Humans
  • MAP Kinase Signaling System*
  • Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinase 1 / metabolism
  • Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinase 3 / metabolism
  • NADPH Oxidases / metabolism
  • Neoplasms / etiology
  • Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Phosphorylation


  • NADPH Oxidases
  • Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinase 1
  • Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinase 3