Study shows how skates, rays and sharks sense electrical fields

Study shows how skates, rays and sharks sense electrical fields
Alcian blue-stained skate with visible canals of ampullary organs. Credit: Julius Lab, UCSF

Sharks, rays and skates can hunt for prey hidden in the sandy sea floor by "listening" for faint traces of bioelectricity—they can literally sense their prey's heart beating. The basic anatomy of the electro-sensory organs that accomplish this feat has been known for decades, but the biological mechanisms - how electrosensory cells pick up faint electrical signs of life—has remained a puzzle.

Now, in a new study published online Monday, March 6 in Nature, researchers at UC San Francisco have cracked the mystery of the electrosensory organ of Leucoraja erinacea, commonly called the little skate, in a series of experiments that traced the mechanisms of electrosensation all the way from genes to cell physiology to behavior.

"Skates and sharks have some of the most sensitive electroreceptors in the animal world," said David Julius, PhD, professor and chair of physiology at UCSF and senior author of the new study. "Understanding how this works is like understanding how proteins in the eye sense light—it gives us insight into a whole new sensory world."

In their study, the researchers first isolated electrosensory cells from skate ampullary organs, which mediate electrosensation, and then performed sensitive recordings that revealed two ionic currents—a voltage-sensitive calcium current that admits calcium ions into the cell in response to and a calcium-sensitive potassium current alters the normal electrical properties of the cell. These currents interact with one another to set up an electrical oscillation in the cells' membranes that is exquisitely sensitive to outside electrical disturbances. This oscillation acts almost like an amplifier to enable the skate to detect the tiny electrical perturbations produced by the electrical field of a prey organism.

Study shows how skates, rays and sharks sense electrical fields
Ampullary bundle with afferent nerve. Credit: Julius Lab, UCSF

Gene expression experiments—which required researchers to functionally annotate the skate genome - confirmed the identity of two particular subtypes of calcium and potassium channels (called the CaV1.3 and BK channels respectively) with unique characteristics that enable skates' electrosensory perception. In one experiment, the researchers added targeted mutations to similar ion channel genes from the rat genome to make them more like the skate channels—experiments in lab dishes showed that these changes conferred electrical properties on the rat channels that made them work like those from skate electrosensory cells.

Finally, the researchers demonstrated the behavioral importance of these channels for skate electrosensation: they placed live skates in tanks with an electrical source hidden under a layer of sand and showed that while normal skates spent much of their time orienting towards and investigating the quadrant of the tank with the hidden electrical signal, skates with these key ion channels blocked by drugs appeared unaware of the simulated meal just inches away.

The findings not only reveal new insights about how skates and sharks find their dinners, but could reveal new information about our own biology, the researchers say. Remarkably, the skate's electrosensory system is evolutionarily related to the mammalian auditory system, and there are many similarities between the skate's electrosensory organs and the "hair cells" of the inner ear responsible for sensitive hearing in mammals.

Calcium channel blocker-treated skate orienting towards electric stimulus. Credit: Julius Lab, UCSF

"Versions of the same ion channels with subtly different are similarly important in our ears," said Nicholas Bellono, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher in the Julius lab and co-lead author of the new study. "So understanding exactly how small differences in these channels affect electrical function could be important for better understanding the auditory system."

Duncan Leitch, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher in the Julius lab and the paper's other co-lead author, added: "Electrosensation has also evolved multiple times in the tree of life, so it will be very interesting to see how other species have gone about solving the same problem. This study opens the door to understanding the biology and evolution of electrical sensation in the animal kingdom much more broadly."

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More information: Nicholas W. Bellono et al. Molecular basis of ancestral vertebrate electroreception, Nature (2017). DOI: 10.1038/nature21401
Journal information: Nature

Citation: Study shows how skates, rays and sharks sense electrical fields (2017, March 6) retrieved 20 July 2019 from
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Mar 06, 2017
Shame the paper's paywalled but it'd be fascinating to know the spectral and temporal bandwidths of the modality in question - the min and max response frequencies in each domain. It's not the specific range i find interesting - which presumably is honed to its particular niche - but simply the size of the bandwidths. I've long anticipated that they'll be shown to be octave-bound - likely spanning multiple octaves in range, and neatly fitting the factor-of-two symmetry defining mammalian audition..

Mar 06, 2017
What's so special about octaves there Octavius?
Do these organs utilize a potassium gradient battery of sorts like auditory hair cells I wonder?

Mar 07, 2017
The equivalence paradox. In what sense are they "equivalent"?

It's obviously not pitch itself, since the stimulus remains intact as distinct upper and lower tones.

So what is this inhenent percept of 'sameness' - what's 'the same' as what?

For some reason, cognition ascribes some kind of informational parity between them, yet there can be no paradoxes; they're different frequencies, so the real question is, why isn't anyone else bothered by this?

If you think it over, it becomes clear that all harmonic consonance and dissonance is but degrees of this mysterious & inexplicable "equivalence", and reciprocally, "inequivalence" as the complexity of the phase modulation increases.

Mar 07, 2017
What i've realised is that factor-of-two frequency relationships represent an informational equilibrium 'ground state' - octaves are "the same" insofar as there is no information about their 'difference'. This correlates with their likewise being the simplest form of frequency relationship possible; all other intervals/ratios are by definition more complex.

So we have this intrinsic axis of informational parity anchored in maximal simplicity / minimal complexity, and so an objective, visceral yardstick of how we're processing informational entropy.

And it's obviously a fundamental currency of meta-information - ie. information about the frequency relationship, not the stimulus itself. That resolves the paradox, but leaves us with this implication that there's a thermodynamic basis to how we process higher information about sensory inputs, that seems more fundamental than audition itself.

Mar 07, 2017
It's not just harmony that fits this bill, but also rhythm of course - induction in either domain are two sides of the same coin - hence all the information we process can be described as spatiotemporal modulation of factor of two symmetries.

It's like an adaptive, scale-invariant grid that everything we resolve 'snaps to' - recall a familiar voice or phrase in your mind, and all of that information - pitch, timbre, intonation etc. is grounded in and constituted in terms of its entropic profile with respect to this emergent bandwidth.

And if it's a general principle of processing, then it should show up in just about every other modality, especially those concerned with waveform analysis.

And very reliably, it does.. hence my interest here.

Same reason i suspect similar parities might be evident in olfaction, per Turin's work, or that a machine subject to the octave equivalence percept would be significant step towards cracking the hard problem..

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