Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Sequencing electric eel genome unlocks shocking secrets


For the first time, the genome of the electric eel has been sequenced. This discovery has revealed the secret of how fishes with electric organs have evolved six times in the history of life to produce electricity outside of their bodies.

The research, published in the current issue of Science, sheds light on the genetic blueprint used to evolve these complex, novel organs. It was co-led by Michigan State University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Texas-Austin and the Systemix Institute.

For the first time, the genome of the electric eel has been sequenced.

Credit: Courtesy of MSU

"It's truly exciting to find that complex structures like the electric organ, which evolved completely independently in six groups of fish, seem to share the same genetic toolkit," said Jason Gallant, MSU zoologist and co-lead author of the paper. "Biologists are starting to learn, using genomics, that evolution makes similar structures from the same starting materials, even if the organisms aren't even that closely related."

Worldwide, there are hundreds of species of electric fish in six broad lineages. Their diversity is so great that Darwin himself cited electric fishes as critical examples of convergent evolution, where unrelated animals independently evolve similar traits to adapt to a particular environment or ecological niche.

All muscle and nerve cells have electrical potential. Simple contraction of a muscle will release a small amount of voltage. But between 100 and 200 million years ago, some fish began to amplify that potential by evolving electrocytes from muscle cells, organized in sequence and capable of generating much higher voltages than those used to make muscles work.

"Evolution has removed the ability of muscle cells to contract and changed the distribution of proteins in the cell membrane; now all electrocytes do is push ions across a membrane to create a massive flow of positive charge," said Lindsay Traeger, U-W graduate student and co-author of the study.

The "in-series alignment" of the electrocytes and unique polarity of each cell allows for the "summation of voltages, much like batteries stacked in series in a flashlight," said Michael Sussman, U-W biochemist.

The additional current required for the power comes from the fact that an eel body contains many millions of such "batteries" working together and firing their electrical discharge simultaneously.

The new work provides the world's first electric fish genome sequence assembly. It also identifies the genetic factors and developmental pathways the animals use to grow an organ that, in the case of the electric eel, can deliver a jolt several times more powerful than the current from a standard household electrical outlet. Other electric fishes use electricity for defense, predation, navigation and communication.

Future MSU research will focus on testing the role of these genes in the development of electric organs, using state-of-the-art transgenic techniques in Gallant's newly constructed laboratory.


The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, the W.M. Keck Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

Michigan State University has been working to advance the common good in uncommon ways for more than 150 years. One of the top research universities in the world, MSU focuses its vast resources on creating solutions to some of the world's most pressing challenges, while providing life-changing opportunities to a diverse and inclusive academic community through more than 200 programs of study in 17 degree-granting colleges.

For MSU news on the Web, go to MSUToday. Follow MSU News on Twitter at

Layne Cameron | Eurek Alert!
Further information:

Further reports about: MSU Sequencing batteries eel electrocytes organs sequence structures

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Two decades of training students and experts in tracking infectious disease
27.11.2015 | Hochschule für Angewandte Wissenschaften Hamburg

nachricht Increased carbon dioxide enhances plankton growth, opposite of what was expected
27.11.2015 | Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Climate study finds evidence of global shift in the 1980s

Planet Earth experienced a global climate shift in the late 1980s on an unprecedented scale, fuelled by anthropogenic warming and a volcanic eruption, according to new research published this week.

Scientists say that a major step change, or ‘regime shift’, in the Earth’s biophysical systems, from the upper atmosphere to the depths of the ocean and from...

Im Focus: Innovative Photovoltaics – from the Lab to the Façade

Fraunhofer ISE Demonstrates New Cell and Module Technologies on its Outer Building Façade

The Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE has installed 70 photovoltaic modules on the outer façade of one of its lab buildings. The modules were...

Im Focus: Lactate for Brain Energy

Nerve cells cover their high energy demand with glucose and lactate. Scientists of the University of Zurich now provide new support for this. They show for the first time in the intact mouse brain evidence for an exchange of lactate between different brain cells. With this study they were able to confirm a 20-year old hypothesis.

In comparison to other organs, the human brain has the highest energy requirements. The supply of energy for nerve cells and the particular role of lactic acid...

Im Focus: Laser process simulation available as app for first time

In laser material processing, the simulation of processes has made great strides over the past few years. Today, the software can predict relatively well what will happen on the workpiece. Unfortunately, it is also highly complex and requires a lot of computing time. Thanks to clever simplification, experts from Fraunhofer ILT are now able to offer the first-ever simulation software that calculates processes in real time and also runs on tablet computers and smartphones. The fast software enables users to do without expensive experiments and to find optimum process parameters even more effectively.

Before now, the reliable simulation of laser processes was a job for experts. Armed with sophisticated software packages and after many hours on computer...

Im Focus: Quantum Simulation: A Better Understanding of Magnetism

Heidelberg physicists use ultracold atoms to imitate the behaviour of electrons in a solid

Researchers at Heidelberg University have devised a new way to study the phenomenon of magnetism. Using ultracold atoms at near absolute zero, they prepared a...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

Fraunhofer’s Urban Futures Conference: 2 days in the city of the future

25.11.2015 | Event News

Gluten oder nicht Gluten? Überempfindlichkeit auf Weizen kann unterschiedliche Ursachen haben

17.11.2015 | Event News

Art Collection Deutsche Börse zeigt Ausstellung „Traces of Disorder“

21.10.2015 | Event News

Latest News

Siemens to supply 126 megawatts to onshore wind power plants in Scotland

27.11.2015 | Press release

Two decades of training students and experts in tracking infectious disease

27.11.2015 | Life Sciences

Coming to a monitor near you: A defect-free, molecule-thick film

27.11.2015 | Materials Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>