Lightning strikes may be doing something really weird to living cells

The loud crack that follows a lightning strike is enough to either strike fear into a person, or make them stare in wonderment at one of nature’s most powerful and mysterious forces. Now, new research published by scientists from Tel Aviv University in Israel suggests the phenomenon may have played a vital role in the evolution of life itself.

In a paper published to Scientific Reports, the team detailed evidence that with more than 2,000 thunderstorms occurring on the planet at any given time, humans and other organisms over the course of billions of years would have been bathed in extremely low-frequency (ELF) electromagnetic fields.

Referred to as Schumann resonances, these fields are weak and difficult to detect. But, rather than being harmful to life like a direct lightning strike, the team found that in controlled experiments, being near them had the opposite effect.

“The most important effect was that the atmospheric ELF fields actually protected cells under stress conditions,” said Prof Colin Price.

“In other words, when biological cells are under stress – due to lack of oxygen, for example – the atmospheric fields from lightning appear to protect them from damage. This may be related to the evolutionary role these fields have played on living organisms.”

A first for research

During experiments, the team induced electromagnetic fields similar to those in the atmosphere, noting significant after-effects on living heart cells of rats after more than half an hour. At this frequency range of between 7.6Hz and 8Hz, rat cardiac cells showed a reduction on contractions and calcium transients, and the release of creatine kinase seen during heart attacks.

Interestingly, these effects were shown to be temporary, as the induced cell changes reversed when the fields were turned off.

“It is the first study that demonstrates a link between global lighting activity and the Schumann resonances, and the activity of living cells,” Price said. “It may explain why all living organisms have electrical activity in the same ELF spectral range, and it is the first time such a connection has been shown.”

Over the course of history, these effects could have had some therapeutic implications, but the team admits further research is needed to determine this for sure.

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