Biophysics of Excitable Cells (PHYS*2030)

Code and section: PHYS*2030*01

Term: Winter 2009

Instructor: Michael Massa


Course Information


Instructor Office Extension Email
Michael Massa MacN 404 52625


Tutorial Instructor Office Extension Email
Andrew Gravelle MacN 020 58541

Course Website


Day Time Location
Tue, Thu 10:00 - 11:20 THRN 1307


Section Day Time Location
#1 Fri. 8:30 - 9:20 MACK 238
#2 Fri. 10:30 - 11:20 MCLN 101

(no tutorials in the midterm week, Feb 27th)


The main objectives of this course are to provide a basic understanding of the physical phenomena underlying nerve and membrane activity, and to illustrate how these are applied to different types of excitable cells. The specific objectives are:

  1. to show how the basic principles of diffusion and electricity apply to biological membranes and individual nerve cells, giving rise to resting and action potentials;
  2. to demonstrate how neural processes are utilized in sensory systems, such as the eye and ear;
  3. to show how physical principles influence the structure and function of excitable cells.

At the end of the course, students should be able to solve basic numerical problems in the above areas, as well as to understand and explain the integration of physical principles in specific biological examples. Evaluation of a student's comprehension of the course material will involve a combination of solving numerical problems and answering questions about principles and structures of cells and organs in four problem sets, one mid-term examination, and a COMPREHENSIVE FINAL EXAMINATION.

Course Materials

Required Text

"Biophysics of Excitable Cells" by G.H. Renninger, U. of Guelph, 2003. Available from the Physics Dept. Quiz Room (SCIE1101).

Supplementary Reading {Available in the Library - On Reserve}

  1. "From Neuron to Brain" by J.G. Nicholls et al. QP 355.2.K83 2001
  2. "Principles of Neural Science" by E.R. Kandel et al. QP 355.2.P76 1991


Assessment Date Weight
4 Problem Sets (6% each) Due Mondays before 4:30
(See the schedule below)
Put into the drop box, MacN, 4th Floor
Mid-term Exam
(80 min exactly)
Thu 26 Feb 2008, THRN 1307,10:00-11:20 AM 30%
Final Examination 
(2 h exactly)
8 Apr 2008, location TBA, 8:30-10:30 PM 46%
Total   100%


The course consists of two 80 min lectures plus an one-hour tutorial each week (you have been sectioned into one or the other of the two tutorial sessions), except for the midterm week, Feb 27th, when there will be no tutorial. The tutorials constitute an important part of the course. Approximately three-fourths of the final grades are based on your ability to solve pure numerical problems. Consequently, the tutorials consist primarily of problem-solving sessions based on material presented in the lectures. If you have had difficulty with physics courses in the past and do not attend the weekly tutorial, you should be prepared to spend considerable extra study time on this course.

Please Take Note of the Following

Plagiarism: Although students are encouraged to share thoughts and ideas, all material submitted for grading must be each student's own work. Submitting someone else's work as your own is plagiarism. Plagiarism is a form of academic misconduct, and will not be tolerated.

Tentative Lecture Schedule

Week Dates Lecture Topic Readings*
1 Tue, Thu
6, 8 Jan

(Tutorial 1) 9 Jan
1,2 Introduction to the Course
Structure of biological membranes
Permeability of ions
R, Ch 1

R, Ch 1
R, Ch 2, Sect 1
R, Ch 2, Sect 2
2 Tue, Thu
13, 15 Jan

(Tutorial 2) 16 Jan
3,4 Active transport

Coulomb's law
Electrical potential energy and work
Electric field and potential , capacitance
R, Ch 2, Sect 3;
N: 61-75; K: 86-88

R, Ch 3, Sect 1
R, Ch 3, Sect 2
R, Ch 3, Sects 3-5
3 Tue, Thu
20, 22 Jan

(Tutorial 3) 23 Jan
5,6 Electric current and mobility
Nernst equation; Donnan equilibrium

D.C. electric circuits
R, Ch 4, Sect 1
R, Ch 4, Sect 2;
N: 77-81; K: 81-86
R, Ch 4, App A; N&K: App A
4 Tue, Thu
27, 29 Jan

(Tutorial 4) 30 Jan
7,8 Equivalent circuit of a membrane;

Goldman-Hodgkin-Katz equation
R, Ch 4, Sect 2; N: 86-88;
K: 89-94
R, Ch 4, Sect 2;
N: 81-86; K: 88-89
5 (PS1 due) 2 Feb
Tue, Thu
3, 5 Feb

(Tutorial 5) 6 Feb
9-10 Injection of current;
Passive electrical properties of the nerve
Details of the nerve impulse

Voltage clamp and ionic currents
R, Ch 5, Sects 1&2;
N: 114-121; K: 95-100
R, Ch 5, Sect 3; N: 91-94,
121-128; K: 100-105
R, Ch 5, Sect 4; N: 94-103;
K: 105-112
6 Tue, Thu
10, 12 Feb

(Tutorial 6) 13 Feb
11-12 Synaptic transmission;
Neuromuscular junction
Electrical synapses
Film: The Squid and its Giant Nerve Fiber
R, Ch 6, Sect 1; N: 160-225,
K: 131-146, 149-152, 194-210
R, Ch 6, Sect 2; N: 158-160;
K: 124-131
7 (PS2 due) Feb23

Tue, 24 Feb

Thu, 26 Feb

(No tutorial) 27 Feb
13 Ion channels: Structure & Function

R, Ch 7; Sect 1&2; N: 26-60;
K: 66-79; 112-118, 146-148
8 Tue, Thu
3, 5 Mar

(Tutorial 7) 6 Mar
14-15 Ion channels: Function & Models

Invertebrate vision;
R, Ch 7; Sect 3; N: 103-110

R, Ch 8;
K: 329-339
9 (PS3 due) Mar 9
Tue, Thu
10, 12 Mar

(Tutorial 8) 13 Mar
16-17 Lateral Inhibition
Vertebrate eye, structure of the retina
Vertebrate Phototransduction
R, Ch 8
R, Ch 8; N: 379-394; K: 401-408
10 Tue, Thu
17, 19 Mar

(Tutorial 9) 20 Mar

Electrical responses of retinal cells,
visual fields, neural connections
Vertebrate hair cell function

R, Ch 8; N: 394-405;
K: 408-416

R, Ch 9; N: 366-372
11 Tue, Thu
24, 26 Mar
(Tutorial 10) 27 Mar
20-21 Sound; structure of the ear;
Frequency detection and coding
R, Ch 9; N: 372-377;
K: 481-498

(PS4 due) Mar 30
Tue, Thu
31 Mar, 2 Apr

(Tutorial 11) 3 Apr


Olfactory receptors: Structure and function

Taste receptors: Structure and function

Review & Course/Prof Evaluation

R, Ch 10; N: 347-350;
K: 512-516

R, Ch 10; N: 350-352; K: 518- 524


Final Examination Wed 8 Apr 2009, 8:30-10:30 AM, location TBA
* R - "Biophysics of Excitable Cells", by G.H. Renninger
N - "From Neuron to Brain", by Nicholls et al. (on reserve - see Supplementary Reading above)
K - "Principles of Neural Science", by Kandel et al. (on reserve - see Supplementary Reading above)