An important step toward understanding the signal transduction mechanisms that modulate cellular activities is the accurate prediction of the mechanical and electro-chemical environment of the cells in well-defined experimental configurations. One such configuration is the steady permeation experiment (e.g., bioreactors) in the open circuit condition. Using our triphasic theory, we have calculated the strain, velocity and the electric potential fields inside a layer of charged articular cartilage, through which a uni-univalent salt (e.g., NaCl) solution permeates under a constant pressure difference across the layer. The fluid flow through the tissue gives rise to an electrical potential difference across the tissue. This potential difference is the well-known “streaming potential” that is measured by Ag/AgCl electrodes placed across the tissue on the outside. Our results show that inside the tissue, in addition to the streaming potential caused by fluid convection, there is also a “diffusion potential” caused by cation and anion concentration gradients that are induced by the gradient of fixed charge density (FCD) inside the tissue. The gradient of FCD may be intrinsic, i.e., the tissue has an inhomogeneous FCD distribution, or it may also be caused by a non-uniform compaction of the solid matrix as is the case in steady permeation where the drag force exerted by the permeating fluid onto the solid matrix causes a compressive strain field inside the tissue. In this experimental configuration, the diffusion potential would compete against the streaming potential. The magnitude and the polarity of the electric field depend, amongst other material parameters, on the compressive stiffness of the tissue. For softer tissue (e.g., aggregate modulus <0.54 MPa for a set of realistic material and testing parameters), the diffusion potential dominates over the streaming potential and vice versa for stiffer tissue. For articular cartilage what the cells see in situ is the combined electrical effect of intrinsic and deformation induced inhomogeneity of FCD. The present results provide not only quantitative information, but also new insight into an important problem in biotechnology. These results also demonstrate that for proper interpretation of the mechano-electrochemical signal transduction mechanisms that is needed for modulating cellular biosynthetic activities, one must not ignore the important effects of diffusion potential.

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