Electric evolution

10 July 2014


Writing in the journal Science, a team of US researchers has discovered how the electric eel got its jolt. Electric fish, including electric eels, use modified muscle cells to generate electrical currents for stunning prey, defending themselves, communication and sensing. There are hundreds of species of electric fish worldwide, divided into six different broad families, or lineages, and it wasn't known whether their shocking abilities evolved just once a long time ago, or several times more recently in the different groups.

The scientists identified the molecular pathways each group uses to generate their electrical organs, and discovered that although each of the six groups uses broadly the same biological 'nuts and bolts' to build them, they all evolved the ability independently over the course of time in different environments.

Impressively, an electric eel can produce up to 600 volts, and is best described by lead researcher Professor Michael Sussman as "A frog with a built-in five-and-a-half-foot cattle prod." He and his team now hope their findings will shed light on ways to manipulate muscle cells to generate electrical energy which might one day be useful for powering bionic devices or other uses.


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