Homework problem 9 in Chapter 9 of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology was added in the 4th edition. It begins

“Problem 9 Analytical solutions to the nonlinear Poisson-Boltzmann equation are rare but not unknown. Consider the case when the potential varies in one dimension (x), the potential goes to zero at large x, and there exists equal concentrations of monovalent cations and anions. Chandler et al. (1965) showed that the solution to the 1-d Poisson-Boltzmann equation, dYou will need to get a copy of the book to see this lovely solution. It is a bit too complicated to write in this blog, but it involves the exponential function, the hyperbolic tangent function, and the inverse hyperbolic tangent function. I like this homework problem, because you can solve both the nonlinear and linear equations exactly, with the same boundary conditions, and compare them to get a good intuitive feel for the impact of the nonlinearity. I admit, the problem is a bit advanced for an intermediate-level book, but upper-level undergraduates or graduate students studying from our text should be up to the challenge.^{2}ζ/dx^{2}=sinh(ζ), is…”

The full citation to the paper by Knox Chandler, Alan Hodgkin, and Hans Meves mentioned in the problem is

Chandler, W. K., A. L. Hodgkin, and H. Meves (1965). The effect of changing the internal solution on sodium inactivation and related phenomena in giant axons. J. Physiol. 180: 821-836.I always thought it odd that one finds a really elegant analytical solution to the nonlinear Poisson-Boltzmann equation in a paper about sodium channel inactivation in a squid nerve axon (with Nobel Prize-winning physiologist Alan Hodgkin as a coauthor). The solution is buried in the discussion (in a section set of in a smaller font than the rest of the paper). The reason for its appearance is that Chandler et al. found changes in membrane behavior with intracellular ion concentration, and postulated that the measured voltage drop between the inside and outside of the axon consisted of a voltage drop across the membrane itself (which affects the ion channel behavior) and a voltage drop within a double layer adjacent to the membrane. It is the double layer voltage that they model using the Poisson-Boltzmann equation.

Nowadays, the nonlinear Poisson-Boltzmann equation is typically solved using numerical methods. See, for example, the paper that Russ Hobbie and I cite in Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology, written by Barry Honig and Anthony Nicholls: “Classical Electrostatics in Biology and Chemistry,” Science, Volume 268, Pages 1144-1149, 1995 (it now has over 1500 citations in the literature). Their abstract states

“A major revival in the use of classical electrostatics as an approach to the study of charged and polar molecules in aqueous solution has been made possible through the development of fast numerical and computational methods to solve the Poisson-Boltzmann equation for solute molecules that have complex shapes and charge distributions. Graphical visualization of the calculated electrostatic potentials generated by proteins and nucleic acids has revealed insights into the role of electrostatic interactions in a wide range of biological phenomena. Classical electrostatics has also proved to be a successful quantitative tool yielding accurate descriptions of electrical potentials, diffusion limited processes, pH-dependent properties of proteins, ionic strength-dependent phenomena, and the solvation free energies of organic molecules.”Such calculations continue to be an active area of research. See, for example, “The Role of DNA Shape in Protein-DNA Recognition” by Remo Rohs, Sean West, Alona Sosinsky, Peng Liu, Richard Mann and Barry Honig (Nature, Volume 461, Pages 1248-1253, 2009).

Electrostatics is interesting,.. but propagation is much more Exciting!

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