Standardized Genetic Design of Electric Fish Stuns Biologists
June 26, 2014 - 1:50 pm
I was dragging my knuckles across the landscape of the internet today — as evangelical Christians do when we’re foraging for information that reinforces our primitive, superstitious worldview — when I accidentally stumbled upon some science, first at NPR.org then at Phys.org. I should have known the latter had something to do with science, but at first it reminded me of gym class.
Anyway, it was awkward…me and science, face-to-face. Science looked at me inquisitively, and I gawked back at him, bovine-like, slack-jawed and glassy-eyed. But since I couldn’t figure out how to close that tabby thing on my browser, I decided to read the articles. (Yes, I can!)
The basic story is that scientists studied six different kinds of fish which have magical powers of electricity. Each species, they said, evolved independently of the others. (I don’t have time to explain evolution to you. Suffice it to say it’s a theory that Charles Darwinian and his Beagle invented so they could worship luck instead of God, and also be communists.)
To the great surprise of the scientists, they found the same mechanisms and the same genetic sequences in each of these creatures. Or to put it in terms even a scientist could understand…
A computationally intense comparative study of the sequences showed that electric organs in fish worldwide used the same genetic tools and cellular and developmental pathways to independently create the electric organ.
I hope I’m not insulting your intelligence by using such elementary language, but there may be some homeschoolers in our audience, and I want them to follow along.
So, among billions of genes in any given fish, each of these creatures used the same set of roughly 30 genes to do the electric boogaloo.
Of course, there’s a perfectly natural Darwinian explanation for how this works…
“If you remove the ability of the muscle cell to contract and change the distribution of proteins in the cell membrane, now all they do is push ions across a membrane to create a massive flow of positive charge,” explains Traeger.
The “in-series alignment” of the electrocytes and unique polarity of each cell allows for the “summation of voltages, much like batteries stacked in series in a flashlight,” says Sussman.
Yep, that’s “all they do.” And that can produce about 100 volts per linear-foot of fish, useful for stunning critters he wants to eat, or for navigating murky deeps better than any man-made submarine.