String galvanometer records show the effect of current flow upon the bioelectric potential of Nitella cells. Three classes of effects are distinguished.
1. Counter E.M.F'S, due either to static or polarization capacity, probably the latter. These account for the high effective resistance of the cells. They record as symmetrical charge and discharge curves, which are similar for currents passing inward or outward across the protoplasm, and increase in magnitude with increasing current density. The normal positive bioelectric potential may be increased by inward currents some 100 or 200 mv., or to a total of 300 to 400 mv. The regular decrease with outward current flow is much less (40 to 50 mv.) since larger outward currents produce the next characteristic effect.
2. Stimulation. This occurs with outward currents of a density which varies somewhat from cell to cell, but is often between 1 and 2 µa/cm.2 of cell surface. At this threshold a regular counter E.M.F. starts to develop but passes over with an inflection into a rapid decrease or even disappearance of positive P.D., in a sigmoid curve with a cusp near its apex. If the current is stopped early in the curve regular depolarization occurs, but if continued a little longer beyond the first inflection, stimulation goes on to completion even though the current is then stopped. This is the "action current" or negative variation which is self propagated down the cell.
During the most profound depression of P.D. in stimulation, current flow produces little or no counter E.M.F., the resistance of the cell being purely ohmic and very low. Then as the P.D. begins to recover, after a second or two, counter E.M.F. also reappears, both becoming nearly normal in 10 or 15 seconds. The threshold for further stimulation remains enhanced for some time, successively larger current densities being needed to stimulate after each action current. The recovery process is also powerful enough to occur even though the original stimulating outward current continues to flow during the entire negative variation; recovery is slightly slower in this case however.
Stimulation may be produced at the break of large inward currents, doubtless by discharge of the enhanced positive P.D. (polarization).
3. Restorative Effects.—The flow of inward current during a negative variation somewhat speeds up recovery. This effect is still more strikingly shown in cells exposed to KCl solutions, which may be regarded as causing "permanent stimulation" by inhibiting recovery from a negative variation. Small currents in either direction now produce no counter E.M.F., so that the effective resistance of the cells is very low. With inward currents at a threshold density of some 10 to 20 µa/cm.2, however, there is a counter E.M.F. produced, which builds up in a sigmoid curve to some 100 to 200 mv. positive P.D. This usually shows a marked cusp and then fluctuates irregularly during current flow, falling off abruptly when the current is stopped. Further increases of current density produce this P.D. more rapidly, while decreased densities again cease to be effective below a certain threshold.
The effects in Nitella are compared with those in Valonia and Halicystis, which display many of the same phenomena under proper conditions. It is suggested that the regular counter E.M.F.'S (polarizations) are due to the presence of an intact surface film or other structure offering differential hindrance to ionic passage. Small currents do not affect this structure, but it is possibly altered or destroyed by large outward currents, restored by large inward currents. Mechanisms which might accomplish the destruction and restoration are discussed. These include changes of acidity by differential migration of H ion (membrane "electrolysis"); movement of inorganic ions such as potassium; movement of organic ions, (such as Osterhout's substance R), or the radicals (such as fatty acid) of the surface film itself. Although no decision can be yet made between these, much evidence indicates that inward currents increase acidity in some critical part of the protoplasm, while outward ones decrease acidity.