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Electric eels can genetically modify other creatures by shocking them

Electric eels, known for their remarkable ability to generate electricity, also play a potentially significant role in natural genetic modification.

In a shocking study by a research team from Nagoya University in Japan, it has been revealed that electric eels can emit electricity potent enough to alter the genetic makeup of small fish larvae. This finding sheds new light on the phenomenon of electroporation and its occurrence in the natural world.

Understanding electroporation

Led by Professor Eiichi Hondo and Assistant Professor Atsuo Iida, the research group at Nagoya University embarked on this study with a hypothesis centered on the natural occurrence of electroporation.

Electroporation is a technique traditionally confined to the laboratory. It involves the application of an electric field to create temporary pores in a cell membrane. This process allows molecules, such as DNA or proteins, to enter the cell. This method is commonly used for gene delivery in various research applications.

Studying electric eels

The research team speculated that the electric discharges in rivers, specifically from electric eels, could influence the cellular structures of nearby organisms. In their experiment, they exposed zebrafish larvae to a DNA solution marked with a glow-in-the-dark tag. Subsequently, an electric eel was introduced to discharge electricity in the environment.

Assistant Professor Iida, challenging the traditional view of electroporation as a lab-only process, stated, “I thought electroporation might happen in nature.”

He elaborated on his theory, suggesting that electric eels in natural habitats like the Amazon River could facilitate genetic recombination in surrounding organisms through their electric discharges. The electricity would interact with environmental DNA fragments in the water.

What the researchers learned

The study’s results were astonishing. Approximately 5% of the zebrafish larvae exhibited markers indicative of successful gene transfer.

This outcome implies that the electric eel’s discharge was effective in promoting gene transfer, despite the differences in pulse shape and voltage stability compared to conventional electroporation machinery.

“Electric eels and other electrically generating organisms could affect genetic modification in nature,” Iida observed, highlighting a new dimension to our understanding of natural genetic processes.

Challenging conventional wisdom

This discovery aligns with other studies that have observed similar phenomena in nature. This includes the effects of lightning on nematodes and soil bacteria. Iida expressed great enthusiasm for the future of research in electric field effects on living organisms.

He believes that these findings challenge conventional wisdom and open doors to unprecedented biological phenomena and potential breakthroughs. “I believe that attempts to discover new biological phenomena based on such ‘unexpected’ and ‘outside-the-box’ ideas will enlighten the world about the complexities of living organisms,” Iida commented.

In summary, the research by Nagoya University’s team adds a significant chapter to our understanding of electroporation and underscores the intricate interplay between natural phenomena and biological processes.

The electric eel, once merely a curiosity due to its electric generating capability, now stands at the forefront of a fascinating scientific discovery. These amazing creatures could potentially transform our perception of genetic modification in the natural world.

More about electric eels

As discussed above, electric eels are a species native to South American freshwater habitats. They are among the most electrifying creatures in the animal kingdom.

Known scientifically as Electrophorus electricus, they possess the unique ability to generate powerful electric shocks. These shocks serve multiple purposes, from hunting prey to self-defense and navigation.

Anatomy and electric generation

Electric eels have elongated, snake-like bodies, typically growing up to 2 meters in length. They lack the typical scales seen in most fish and have a slimy, absorbing skin which aids in breathing as they extract oxygen directly from the air.

The key to their electric ability lies in three pairs of abdominal organs: the Main, Hunter’s, and Sachs’ organs. These organs contain electrocytes, specialized cells functioning much like batteries. When the eel decides to generate a shock, these cells align to send a burst of electricity through the water.

Electric eels’ behavior and habitat

Electric eels inhabit the murky waters of the Amazon and Orinoco River basins. They prefer slow-moving, oxygen-poor waters where they can easily rise to the surface to breathe air.

Hunting and feeding

Electric eels use low-voltage electric discharges to navigate and locate prey in their dark environment. Once they find a target, they emit high-voltage shocks to stun or kill the prey, which typically includes fish, amphibians, and even small birds or mammals.

Reproduction and lifecycle

Electric eels are solitary creatures, coming together only to mate. During the dry season, males build nests from saliva and guard the eggs. The young eels hatch with a developed electric organ, ready to start generating shocks.

Power of electric eels’ discharge

An electric eel can generate shocks of up to 600 volts, making it one of the most powerful bioelectricity generators. This voltage is enough to stun a human and is far higher than the 120 volts typically found in household electrical outlets in the United States. As we learned above, the charge is strong enough to transfer genetic material to other organisms

Research and applications

Scientists study electric eels for insights into bioelectricity. Their unique physiology has inspired research in medical technologies, such as designing better pacemakers and understanding electrical impulses in the human body.

Conservation status of electric eels

Despite their formidable defense mechanism, electric eels face threats from habitat loss and pollution. Conservation efforts focus on preserving their natural habitats and maintaining the ecological balance of South American river systems.

In summary, electric eels are not only a marvel of nature but also a window into the vast potential of bioelectricity. Their unique characteristics continue to fascinate scientists and nature enthusiasts alike, making them a significant subject in the study of aquatic life and bioelectrical phenomena.

The full study was published in the journal PeerJ.

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