Gene responsible for electric fish 'spark' found in South American ghost knifefish

March 27, 2018, Public Library of Science
Parapteronotus hasemani, a species of ghost knifefish used this this study. Credit: G. Troy Smith

Unique genetic re-wiring of a sodium channel explains how a family of electric fish can generate the highest frequency of electrical discharge seen in any animal. In a study publishing 27 March in the open access journal PLOS Biology researchers Ammon Thompson, Daniel Infield and colleagues at the University of Texas, Austin, University of Iowa, and Indiana University Bloomington show that this evolutionarily modified sodium channel could contribute to the electric organ's high-frequency firing.

Electric fish sense their environment and communicate with each other by producing from their electric organs. One group of from the Americas called the Apteronotids, or "ghost knifefish," generate electrical signals through the action potentials of specialized cells that originated from modified in the spinal cord. The electric organs of these fish attain the highest frequency of any cell type in any animal, often exceeding 1 kHz (i.e. 1,000 pulses per second), and can do this spontaneously without input from the brain.

Sodium channels are tiny pores that allow positively charged in and out of cells in a tightly regulated manner, allowing the generation of electrical signals to regulate cellular functions such as muscle contraction. One type of sodium channel, called "voltage-gated," open and close in response to the voltage across the cell membrane.

While comparing genes that encode voltage-gated sodium channels across several electric and non-electric fish species the researchers showed that in the ancestor of a group of fish within the Apteronotids, the gene that normally encodes sodium channels in muscle was duplicated. During the fish's subsequent evolution, one copy of the gene then gained the ability to make sodium channels in the spinal cord where the motor neurons that dictate the firing frequency of the are located.

As well as expanding where the sodium channel was made, subsequent mutations in this new gene caused the channel to open more frequently than its muscle-specific ancestor, likely contributing to the Apteronotid electric organ's high-frequency firing. This is an important finding because this type of channel is present only in the muscles of most animals, including humans; its presence in the spinal neurons of Apteronotids is unique.

Sodium channels are an important target of numerous neurotoxins and are implicated in congenital neurological and muscle disorders such as epilepsy and muscle weakness. Future investigations on the mutations displayed by this new could shed light on the mutations underlying these disorders in humans.

Explore further: How a fish can fry: Scientists uncover evolutionary clues behind electric fish

More information: Thompson A, Infield DT, Smith AR, Smith GT, Ahern CA, Zakon HH (2018) Rapid evolution of a voltage-gated sodium channel gene in a lineage of electric fish leads to a persistent sodium current. PLoS Biol 16(3): e2004892. doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2004892

Related Stories

New insights into sodium channel structure

April 4, 2017

Northwestern Medicine scientists have mapped the complete structure of a voltage-gated sodium channel, proteins in the membrane of cells that play an important role in many diseases. The findings were published in Nature ...

'Missing mutation' found in severe infant epilepsy

March 20, 2018

Researchers have discovered a "missing mutation" in severe infant epilepsy—long-suspected genetic changes that might trigger overactive, brain-damaging electrical signaling leading to seizures They also found early indications ...

Electric fish plug in to communicate

September 29, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Just as people plug in to computers, smart phones and electric outlets to communicate, electric fish communicate by quickly plugging special channels into their cells to generate electrical impulses, University ...

Recommended for you

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

betterexists
not rated yet Mar 27, 2018
WHEN ARE WE GOING TO GET ALL OF THESE FEATURES in Our Own Bodies? We should be able to walk in a Forest without a Lion, Fox or Tiger Daring to get near us ! Humans should Reign Supreme !
Digitalbookworm5678
not rated yet Mar 28, 2018
Humans already reign supreme. We're the best at dealing death, destruction and ruin upon everything else on this planet. Foxes? Seriously?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.