Revealing the peculiar genetic impact of electric eels

Nagoya University researchers have found that electric eels, capable of generating up to 860 volts, can induce genetic changes in nearby organisms through a process similar to electroporation. Credit: SciTechDaily.com

Electric eels can naturally alter the genetics of nearby species, a discovery has revealed Nagoya University Researchers highlight the role of natural electricity in genetic mutations.

The electric eel is the largest power-generating creature on Earth. It can output up to 860 volts, which is enough to run an engine. In a recent study, a research team at Nagoya University in Japan found that electric eels can emit enough electricity to genetically modify small fish larvae. They published their findings in the journal Science PeerJ – Life and Environment.

Understanding electroporation in nature

The researchers’ findings add to what we know about electroporation, a gene delivery technique. Electroporation uses an electric field to create temporary holes in cell membranes. It allows molecules DNA or proteins, enter the target cell.

Electric eels genetically modify small fish larvae by electrocuting them

Electric eels, Earth’s largest power-generating species, can emit enough electricity to genetically modify tiny fish larvae, researchers have discovered. Credit: Shintaro Sakaki

The research team was led by Professor Eiichi Hondo and Assistant Professor Atsuo Iida from Nagoya University. They thought that if electricity flowed in the river, it could affect the cells of nearby organisms. Cells can attach DNA fragments to water, known as environmental DNA. To test this, they exposed young fish in their lab to a DNA solution with a marker that fluoresces in light, to see if the zebrafish had taken up the DNA. Later, they introduced an electric eel and induced it to bite a feeder to discharge the electricity.

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Electric eels: natural agents of genetic modification

According to Aida, electroporation is generally seen as a process only found in the laboratory, but she doesn’t believe so. “I thought electroporation could happen in nature,” he said. “I realized that eels in the Amazon River could act as energy sources, that living organisms in the surrounding area could act as recipient cells, and that pieces of environmental DNA released into the water could become foreign genes and cause genetic rearrangements in surrounding organisms. due to electrical discharge.”

Zebrafish larvae with modified DNA

The DNA of zebrafish larvae has been modified by electrolysis of eels (shown in green). (Zebrafish and highlighted GFP images are overlaid). Credit: Shintaro Sakaki

The researchers found that 5% of the larvae had markers that showed gene transfer. “Although the eels have different patterns of pulse and transient voltage compared to the machines commonly used in electroporation, this indicates that the discharge from the electric eel promotes gene transfer to the cells,” Ida said. “Electric eels and other organisms that generate electricity may affect genetic modification in nature.”

Other studies have observed a similar phenomenon in naturally occurring fields affecting lightning, nematodes and soil bacteria. Aida is very excited about the possibilities of electric field research in living organisms. He believes these effects are incomprehensible by conventional wisdom. “I believe that efforts to discover new biological phenomena based on such “unexpected” and “out-of-the-box” ideas will enlighten the world about the complexities of living things and spur future breakthroughs.”


The zebrafish larvae and DNA solution were placed in a small container and placed inside the tank, where the electric eel produced electric pulses when fed by the experimenter. Credit: Shintaro Sakaki

Reference: Shintaro Sakaki1, Ryo Ito1, Hideki Abe1, Masato Kinoshita2, Eiichi Hondo1, Atsuo Iida, 4 December 2023, “Electric organ discharge from electric eel facilitates DNA transfer into teleost larvae under laboratory conditions” PeerJ – Life and Environment.
DOI: 10.7717/peerj.16596

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