According to textbooks, we’re chemical machines. We take in food. The food gets metabolized, and provides our bodies with chemical energy, all through ATPs high-energy phosphate bond.

Pretty much everything is biochemical, according to textbooks.

But multiple hints imply that we might also operate electrically. We all know of the electrocardiogram. And we also know about the electroencephalogram, informing us of the our brains activities. And also, every cell has an electrical potential.

We mainly consider these electrical phenomena as side shows in the drama of biochemistry. But is that view really accurate? Could we essentially function as electrical machines, rather than chemical machines?

Let me explain why I believe that may be a distinct possibility.

Our cells are filled with negative charge. If you stick one electrode inside the cell and another outside, you will record an inside negative electrical potential. That’s well known.

But what’s the reason?

Most scientists think it’s all based on the cell membrane. The membrane is presumed to contain molecular pumps, which propel charged ions across the cell membrane. The membrane is also thought to contain channels that admit only certain ions but not others. Together, this membrane machinery is thought to admit more negative than positive ions into the cell. So the cell has a negative electrical potential.

That belief system dominates cell biology, The concept has brought multiple Nobel Prizes and various other distinctions. Nevertheless, that prevailing view is challenged by simple arguments. I’ve presented them in books and publications.

Here’s one simple argument: remove the membrane. That leaves only the cytoplasm, a gel-like entity. It turns out that gels themselves bear negative electrical potential, similar in magnitude as the cell’s electrical potential. They do so even though they have no membrane and, obviously, no pumps and no channels. You’d think that observation would point to the gel-like cytoplasm as the source of cell negativity, not the cell membrane. Yet, the prevailing view has remained steadfast: It’s the pumps and channels that presumably do the job of establishing the cell potential.

Another relevant observation: punch holes in the membrane — holes large enough to permit huge molecules like DNA to pass through. It’s a standard technique called “electroporation.” The holes stay open for a very long time: Even when foreign DNA is offered outside the cell after one day following electroporation, that DNA demonstrably gets inside the cell. You know that’s the case because the cell expresses the foreign DNA. So, short-circuiting those pumps and channels with large holes has no important effect on the cell. You have to ask why those pumps and channels should exist in the first place.

Then, there is the real-estate argument. By now, known pumps and channels total somewhere in the thousands, with new ones discovered regularly. Can the cell membrane really accommodate all of those entities? Or, are they merely “theoretical” entities, which, by the way, are not visibly detected in the electron microscope.

So, if those membrane-based features do not bear responsibility for the cell’s electrical potential, then what is responsible? Why is the cell negatively charged? And why is it important?

Our studies have shown that the cell is filled with EZ water. Except for unusual situations, EZ water is negatively charged. So, if the cell is filled with a negatively charged substance, then it will have a negative electrical potential. No way around it.

Now think of all of those negative charges packed into the cell. The charges repel one another: they want to get as far away as possible from each other. That tendency—tightly packed charges—amounts to potential energy. Those charges can do work.

As a rule, nature doesn’t waste energy. And here that potential energy definitely gets used. When the cell swings into action—for example, when the relaxed muscle cell opts to contract—the electrical potential dynamically transitions from negative to zero. We call that transition the “action potential.” And it’s largely based on the cell’s water: The water transitions from negatively charged EZ water to neutral liquid water. Hence, the change of potential. And that water transition prompts the proteins to fold. The folding creates cell action (like contraction, or secretion, or nerve conduction). I detail all of that in my book, Cells, Gels, and the Engines of Life.

So what’s the upshot of all this? Well, we may indeed get some of our energy from ATPs high-energy phosphate bond, but at the same time, at least some of our energy may well come from EZ water, i.e., from EZ’s packed negative charges.

And if that’s genuinely true — and I believe it is — then we may be as much electrical machines as chemical machines. Charges may play a dominant role … not just a side event, but perhaps a central player in cell function, whose full prominence is yet to be explored.