Electric Fish Genomes Reveal How Evolution Repeats Itself

Along the murky bottom of the Amazon River, serpentine fish called electric eels scour the gloom for unwary frogs or other small prey. When one swims by, the fish unleash two 600-volt pulses of electricity to stun or kill it. This high-voltage hunting tactic is distinctive, but a handful of other fish species also use electricity: They generate and sense weaker voltages when navigating through muddy, slow-moving waters and when communicating with others of their species through gentle shocks akin to morse code.

Normally, when several species share an ability as unusual as generating electricity, it’s because they’re closely related. But the electric fish in the rivers of South America and Africa span six distinct taxonomic groups, and there are three other marine lineages of electric fish beyond them. Even Charles Darwin mused on both the novelty of their electrical abilities and the strange taxonomic and geographic distribution of them in On the Origin of Species, writing, “It is impossible to conceive by what steps these wondrous organs have been produced”—not just once, but repeatedly.

A recent paper published in Science Advances helps to unravel this evolutionary mystery. “We’re really just following up on Darwin, as most biologists do,” said Harold Zakon, an integrative biologist at the University of Texas, Austin and co-senior author of the study. By piecing together genomic clues, his team in Texas and colleagues at Michigan State University uncovered how a number of strikingly similar electric organs arose in electric fish lineages separated by roughly 120 million years of evolution and 1,600 miles of ocean. As it turns out, there’s more than one way to evolve an electric organ, but nature does have some favorite tricks to fall back on.

The South American and African fish that Zakon’s group studies get their zap from specialized electric organs extending along much of their body. Modified muscle cells called electrocytes in the organs create sodium ion gradients. When sodium-gate proteins in the membranes of the electrocytes open, this produces a burst of current. “It’s about the simplest signal you could imagine,” said Zakon.

In muscle, these electric signals flow through and between cells to help them contract for movements, but in the electric organs the voltage is directed outward. The strength of each shock depends on how many electrocytes fire at once. Most electric fish only fire a few at a time, but because electric eels pack an unusually high number of electric cells, they can unleash voltages powerful enough to kill small prey.

In the new work, Zakon, his former research technician Sarah LaPotin (now a doctoral candidate at the University of Utah) and his other colleagues reconstructed a key aspect of the evolution of these electric organs by tracing the fishes’ genomic history.

It began between 320 million and 400 million years ago, when the ancestor of all fish classified as teleosts survived a rare genetic accident that duplicated its entire genome. Whole-genome duplications are often deadly for vertebrates. But because they create redundant copies of everything in the genome, duplications can also open up previously untapped genetic possibilities. “Suddenly, you have the capacity to make a whole new pathway, instead of just one new gene,” said Gavin Conant, a systems biologist at North Carolina State University who was not involved in the study.

Harold Zakon, an integrative biologist at the University of Texas, Austin, was one of the leaders of the new study of electric fish evolution. “We’re really just following up on Darwin, as most biologists do,” he said.Photograph: Lynne McAnelly/Quanta Magazine

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