Cellular studies and interaction mechanisms of extremely low frequency fields


  • Robert P. Liburdy


Worldwide interest in the biological effects of ELF (extremely low frequency, <1 kHz) electromagnetic fields has grown significantly. Health professionals and government administrators and regulators, scientists and engineers, and, importantly, an increasing number of individuals in the general public are interested in this health issue. The goal of research at the cellular level is to identify cellular responses to ELF fields, to develop a dose threshold for such interactions, and with such information to formulate and test appropriate interaction mechanisms. This review is selective and will discuss the most recent cellular studies directed at these goals which relate to power line, sinusoidal ELF fields. In these studies an interaction site at the cell membrane is by consensus a likely candidate, since changes in ion transport, ligand-receptor events such as antibody binding, and G protein activation have been reported. These changes strongly indicate that signal transduction (ST) can be influenced. Also, ELF fields are reported to influence enzyme activation, gene expression, protein synthesis, and cell proliferation, which are triggered by earlier ST events at the cell membrane. The concept of ELF fields altering early cell membrane events and thereby influencing intracellular cell function via the ST cascade is perhaps the most plausible biological framework currently being investigated for understanding ELF effects on cells. For example, the consequence of an increase due to ELF fields in mitogenesis, the final endpoint of the ST cascade, is an overall increase in the probability of mutagenesis and consequently cancer, according to the Ames epigenetic model of carcinogenesis. Consistent with this epigenetic mechanism and the ST pathway to carcinogenesis is recent evidence that ELF fields can alter breast cancer cell proliferation and can act as a copromoter in vitro. The most important dosimetric question being addressed currently is whether the electric (E) or the magnetic (B) field, or if combinations of static B and time-varying B fields represent an exposure metric for the cell. This question relates directly to understanding fundamental interaction mechanisms and to the development of a rationale for ELF dose threshold guidelines. The weight of experimental evidence indicates that an induced E field according to Faraday's law of induction during magnetic field exposures elicits cellular effects. An E-field-mediated interaction has interesting consequences for microdosimetry at the cellular level and is mechanistically consistent with an interaction at the cell surface, since the E field does not penetrate beyond the cell membrane. Recently, several studies have suggested that an ELF B field by itself or in combination with a static B field may elicit cellular effects. Thus in addition to E-field-mediated effects, other interaction mechanisms as yet not fully understood may operate at the cellular level; this complexity is in contrast to the case for ionizing radiation. In addition to the question of an exposure field metric, the biological state of the target cell is important in ELF interactions. Biological factors such as cell type, cell cycle, cell activation, age of donor animal, passage number of cell line, presence of specific growth/mitogenic factors, temperature, shape, and cell density/packing during exposures have been shown to play a role in mediating ELF interactions with cells. Most recently, reports of single-cell studies usher in a new direction for research that can be termed microbioelectromagnetics. Single-cell digital microscopy introduces a new approach to answer the above questions with potential for real-time microdosimetry and bioeffects limited only by the spatial resolution of state-of-the-art microscopy, which is approximately 0.1 /μm. Digital imaging microscopy should therefore permit the quantitative assessment of spatial and temporal features of ELF field interactions within living single cells.