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BMC Biophysics









Cellular biomechanics can be manipulated by strong electric fields, manifested by the field-induced membrane deformation and migration (galvanotaxis), which significantly impacts normal cellular physiology. Artificial giant vesicles that mimic the phospholipid bilayer of the cell membrane have been used to investigate the membrane biomechanics subjected to electric fields. Under a strong direct current (DC) electric field, the vesicle membrane demonstrates various patterns of deformation, which depends on the conductivity ratio between the medium and the cytoplasm. The vesicle exhibits prolate elongation along the direction of the electric field if the cytoplasm is more conductive than the medium. Conversely, the vesicle exhibits an oblate deformation if the medium is more conductive. Unlike a biological cell, artificial vesicles do not migrate in the strong DC electric field.

To reconcile the kinematic difference between a cell and a vesicle under a strong DC electric field, we proposed a structure that represents a low-conductive, “shell-like” membrane. This membrane separates the extracellular medium from the cytoplasm. We computed the electric field, induced surface charge and mechanical pressure on the fixed membrane surface. We also computed the overall translational forces imposed on the structure for a vesicle and a cell.


The DC electric field generated a steady-state radial pressure due to the interaction between the local electric field and field-induced surface charges. The radial pressure switches its direction from “pulling” to “compressing” when the medium becomes more conductive than the cytoplasm. However, this switch can happen only if the membrane becomes extremely conductive under the strong electric field. The induced surface charges do not contribute to the net translational force imposed on the structure. Instead, the net translational force generated on the shell structure depends on its intrinsic charges. It is zero for the neutrally-charged, artificial vesicle membrane. In contrast, intrinsic charges in a biological cell could generate translational force for its movement in a DC electric field.


This work provides insights into factors that affect cellular/vesicle biomechanics inside a strong DC electric field. It provides a quantitative explanation for the distinct kinematics of a spherical cell verses a vesicle inside the field.


Author Posting. © The Author 2017. This article is posted here for personal use, not for redistribution. The article was published in BMC Biophysics, 2017,

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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.