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Each biological cell, trillions of which build our bodies, is enveloped by its plasma membrane. Composed largely of a bilayer (double layer) of lipids just two molecules thick (about 5 nm), and behaving partly as a liquid and partly as a gel, the cell plasma membrane nonetheless separates and protects the cell from its surrounding environment very reliably and stably. Embedded within the lipid bilayer, also quite stably, are a number of different proteins, some of which act as channels and pumps, providing a pathway for transporting specific molecules across the membrane. Without these proteins, the membrane would be a largely impenetrable barrier. Electrically, the cell plasma membrane can be viewed as a thin insulating sheet surrounded on both sides by aqueous electrolyte solutions. When exposed to a sufficiently strong electric field, the membrane will undergo electrical breakdown, which renders it permeable to molecules that are otherwise unable to cross it. The process of rendering the membrane permeable is called membrane electroporation. Unlike solid insulators, in which an electrical breakdown generally causes permanent structural change, the membrane, with its lipids behaving as a two-dimensional liquid, can spontaneously return to its prebreakdown state. If the exposure is sufficiently short and the membrane recovery sufficiently rapid for the cell to remain viable, electroporation is termed reversible; otherwise, it is termed irreversible. Since its discovery ?????????, electroporation has steadily gained ground as a useful tool in various areas of medicine and biotechnology. Today, reversible electroporation is an established method for introducing chemotherapeutic drugs into tumor cells (electrochemotherapy) . It also offers great promise as a technique for gene therapy without the risks caused by viral vectors (DNA electrotransfer) . In clinical medicine, irreversible electroporation is being investigated as a method for tissue ablation (n- nthermal electroablation) , whereas in biotechnology, it is useful for extraction of biomolecules  and for microbial deactivation, particularly in food preservation . This article, the first in a series of three focusing on electroporation, describes the phenomenon at the molecular level of the lipid bilayer, and then proceeds to the cellular level, explaining how exposure of a cell as a whole to an external electric field results in an inducement of voltage on its plasma membrane, its electroporation, and transport thorough the electroporated membrane. The second article will review the most important and promising applications of electroporation, and the third article will focus on the hardware for electroporation (pulse generators and electrodes) and on the need for standards, safety, and certification.
Date of Publication: September-October 2012