L AFAYETTE — The future of biomedical science may be buzzing around in tanks on the fourth floor of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Wharton Hall.
After 14 years of research, a group of scientists released an article in Science magazine that explains how the shock of electric fish has evolved, opening a door to future practical applications.
James Albert, biodiversity researcher and associate professor of biology at the university, was part of a research team of 16 scientists assembled from around the country by University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Michael Sussman to map the electric eel’s genome, or genetic makeup.
Albert’s colleagues were interested in the biomedical ramifications that the study could yield and in their possible use in the next generation of implantable organs in humans.
“You could either implant an actual battery, or you could have your body make the battery,” Albert said. “You could even have your body make the machine itself, which would be the ultimate goal. It’s a little Frankensteinish, but we’ll proceed with ethical caution.”
The team worked in Peru to catch native freshwater electric fish and compare their electricity-producing organs to a species of African fish of similar size they acquired through the aquarium trade.
“Every summer, we’d go down and work,” Albert said. “Peru is a good country to work in. It’s politically stable and still has lots of wilderness.”
Both groups of fish grow to be about 6 feet long and pack quite a shock, Albert said.
The fish lurk at the murky bottom of the rivers they call home. Albert and his team dove into the deep, muddy Amazonian rivers to catch these fish, reaching depths as far down as 110 feet.
To track down the fish in the muddy darkness, the team used an auditory device attached to a rubber-insulated wire much like a metal detector that would pick up the electrical fields the fish send out to navigate.
This is referred to by scientists as electrolocation, and is similar to how bats and dolphins employ echolocation — sound echoes — to travel where visual senses fail.
When the device would give off the right hum, they’d swing their nets, hoping to grab the sleeping giants.
“It was challenging,” Albert said. “It was really hard to keep the net down with the river current.”
So, the team eventually gave up trolling the bottom of the river and swam up to about 30 feet.
There, they hit pay dirt.
“We caught, like, a gazillion fish,” he recalled.
The fishes’ electric organs, which make up 90 percent of their bodies, conduct electricity through modified disc-shaped cells called electrocytes.
What the group found is that the two groups of fish, thousands of miles away from each other, evolved similar electrocytes independently for defense, predation, navigation and communication.
“It’s rare,” Albert said. “Only two groups out of thousands (of species of electric fish) do it this way.”
The team published its findings in June, identifying how the electric organ belonging to eels and other electric fishes evolved over time. The team also completed genetic mapping of the fishes.
“Sometimes, science takes a long time,” Albert said. “In the grand scheme of things, 14 years is nothing, but in one person’s life, that’s a lot.”
As for the possibility of discharging lightning from our fingertips through developed electric organs of our own, Albert said that’s very unlikely because that’s just not how electricity works.
“It only happens in fishes,” he said. “No land vertebrates produce electricity because it only works underwater.”