A Genetic Zap

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Scientists discovered that the powerful zap of an electric eel doesn’t just stun prey but is actually strong enough to transfer environmental DNA into the cells of nearby animals, New Atlas reported.

In a new study, a research team found that the eels – which are a species of knifefish – produce electroporation, which involves the application of an electric field to cells to increase the permeability of their cell membrane.

This allows foreign genetic material to be introduced to the cells and the technique is employed in gene- and cell-based therapies.

To test how the zapping fish exhibits electroporation in nature, researchers placed an eel in a tank with six-day-old zebrafish larvae. They then added DNA carrying green fluorescent protein (GFP) inside the tank.

When a goldfish was added to the tank, the eel released electricity to stun its prey before consuming it. The researchers then analyzed the zebrafish larvae and saw many of their cells displayed intense green fluorescence under ultra-violet light.

More than five percent of the larvae showed GFP-positive cells.

The findings showed that the discharge from the electric eel “promoted gene transfer to the cells,” according to co-author Atsuo Iida.

“Electric eels and other organisms that generate electricity could affect genetic modification in nature,” he added.

Still, Iida and others noted that they only have evidence of the transfer of environmental DNA, adding that it’s unclear whether these transferred genes are heritable in offspring.

Attempts to validate this with single-celled organisms, such as E. coli bacteria, were unsuccessful, possibly due to the eel’s voltage being too low for effective electroporation.

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