Action Potentials in a Giant Algal Cell : A Comparative Approach to Mechanisms and Evolution of Excitability

Bruce R Johnson, Robert A Wyttenbach, Randy Wayne, Ronald R Hoy


The giant alga Chara corallina generates action potentials (APs) in response to mechanical stimulation, injury, or direct electrical stimulation. Students examine the waveform characteristics of these APs using standard intracellular recording techniques. Intracellular recording is easier than with neurons because of the large size of the Chara cell. Students observe very negative resting potentials (up to -250 mV), large AP amplitudes with depolarizing peaks approaching 0 mV, AP durations of seconds, and refractory periods up to several minutes. Students calculate Nernst potentials for the ions distributed across the Chara cell membrane to hypothesize the ions responsible for the resting potential and for the depolarizing phase of the AP. These calculations suggest that K+ is responsible for the resting potential and that Ca2+ influx and Ca2+-activated Cl- efflux are responsible for depolarizing phases of the AP, which they are. Comparison of the Chara AP characteristics with animal neuron and muscle APs reinforces understanding of mechanisms of excitability in animals, demonstrates that multiple solutions exist for action potential generation, and leads to discussion of the evolution of ion channels and excitability.

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