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Vidi Grant for Stefan Semrau: how does bioelectricity shape embryonic development?

Leiden biophysicist Stefan Semrau was granted an NWO Vidi earlier this month. He will use the grant to study the role of electricity in embryonic development and tissue regeneration.

Human life would be impossible without bioelectricity. Fundamental life processes, such as the communication between our brain cells or the contraction of our muscles, depend on the creation and sensing of electrical signals. Recent pioneering studies (1, 2) revealed that bioelectricity has another, vastly underappreciated role: guiding embryonic development and tissue regeneration. The electric potential across the cell membrane (Vmem) turned out to influence crucial developmental processes, like patterning in the right direction or control of organ size. ‘Even more excitingly, perturbation of Vmem was able to trigger regeneration of severed limbs in adult organisms,’ says Semrau. ‘However that study was carried out in non-mammalian species.’

stem cells

Semrau: ‘In my proposal I suggested to elucidate the role of bioelectricity in mammalian development. For that we have to understand at a fundamental level how bioelectricity influences gene expression and therefore how it shapes the composition of tissues. My research group uses embryonic stem cells as a model to study mammalian development. Our pilot experiments revealed already that perturbation of Vmem can influence which cell type a stem cell eventually will become. This encouraging result hints at important, undiscovered functions of bioelectricity.’


Semrau will first define the molecular processes that influence Vmem. Then he will explore how Vmem impacts gene expression and cell type specification in for example embryonic stem cells. ‘We will develop an imaging approach to measure for the first time the spatial diversity of Vmem with near-nanometer accuracy. In the end, we aim to pave the way for the application of bioelectric signals in regenerative medicine.’

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