Electricity from Electric Eels may Transfer Genetic Material to Nearby Animals
Published:22 Feb.2024    Source:Nagoya University

The electric eel is the biggest power-making creature on Earth. It can release up to 860 volts, which is enough to run a machine. In a recent study, a research group from Nagoya University in Japan found electric eels can release enough electricity to genetically modify small fish larvae. They published their findings in PeerJ -- Life and Environment. The researchers' findings add to what we know about electroporation, a gene delivery technique. Electroporation uses an electric field to create temporary pores in the cell membrane. This lets molecules, like DNA or proteins, enter the target cell.


The research group was led by Professor Eiichi Hondo and Assistant Professor Atsuo Iida from Nagoya University. They thought that if electricity flows in a river, it might affect the cells of nearby organisms. Cells can incorporate DNA fragments in water, known as environmental DNA. To test this, they exposed the young fish in their laboratory to a DNA solution with a marker that glowed in the light to see if the zebrafish had taken the DNA. Then, they introduced an electric eel and prompted it to bite a feeder to discharge electricity.


The researchers discovered that 5% of the larvae had markers showing gene transfer. "This indicates that the discharge from the electric eel promoted gene transfer to the cells, even though eels have different shapes of pulse and unstable voltage compared to machines usually used in electroporation," said Iida. "Electric eels and other organisms that generate electricity could affect genetic modification in nature." Other studies have observed a similar phenomenon occurring with naturally occurring fields, such as lightning, affecting nematodes and soil bacteria.