One night in 1984, British scientist Frances Ashcroft was studying electricity in the body and discovered the protein that causes neonatal diabetes. She says she felt so "over the moon" that she couldn't sleep.
By the next morning, she says, she thought it was a mistake.
But luckily, that feeling was wrong, and Ashcroft's revelation led to a medical breakthrough decades later, which now enables people born with diabetes to take pills instead of injecting insulin.4
"I don't think people realize the excitement of being a true discoverer," Ashcroft tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "There are no new places to discover on this Earth, but there are many, many new ideas to discover — new things to find out about the way the world works."
Ashcroft says she grew up wanting to be a farmer's wife but later became fascinated with studying electrical impulses in the body. Her new book The Spark of Life details how electricity drives everything we think, feel or do through ion channels that are found in the membranes of each of our cells.
"Your ability to hear me now is because there are cells in your ears that are converting sound waves into an electrical signal, which is what the brain can interpret as sound," Ashcroft says.
Ashcroft is a professor at Oxford University and the winner of the L'oreal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science. She is now working on trying to see a particular protein at atomic resolution and on understanding why people become overweight.
On the difference between electricity in wires and electricity in bodies
"Bioelectricity is similar but not identical to the stuff that's in sockets. Both are electrical currents, and, in both cases, the electrical current is nothing more than a flow of charged particles. But the stuff in our houses is carried by electrons whereas the stuff in our bodies is carried by ions — salt such as sodium chloride, common salt, in other words, the stuff you put on your meat. The second thing is that the speed is very different. So electricity in wires is carried at the speed of light, which is around 186,000 miles a second, whereas that in our bodies is very, very much slower."
On how electricity drives the way our bodies and bats sense heat
"Whenever you feel something that's burning hot — this is detected by this particular ion channel. It's sensitive to heat. And it fires off a signal that goes up your nerve cells. And it's exactly the same ion channels that are stimulated by chili peppers. So the reason that chili peppers taste so hot is that they stimulate the same ion channel, and the brain interprets them both as the same thing. And interestingly, they have been modified in vampire bats to detect the body heat of their prey. So that's how they can pick up the fact that your big toe is sticking out of a mosquito net, so they can come and suck your blood."
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