Speed Reads

electrifying news

Evolutionary biologists shocked by what they discover about the electric eel

Scientists wanted to get to the bottom of what makes the electric eel and other electric fish species, well, electric. So, they analyzed the genes of the eel and other electric fish from different families, and discovered that their genetic blueprints all had the same set of roughly 30 genes.

"They're using the same genetic tools to build their electric organs in each lineage independently," Jason Gallant, electric fish specialist at Michigan State University, told NPR. "It seems like there are limited ways to build an electric organ. And that's sort of a surprising finding... you wouldn't necessarily have expected that."

Michael Sussman, director of the biotechnology center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, explains that "all of the intestines and the stomach and all that stuff is right close to the head, and the rest of the electric eel is an electric organ." Although that tissue is like muscle, it's unable to contract. The cells are large and that's what emits electricity without shocking the fish. Each foot of the eel translates to about 100 volts.

Sussman has been shocked multiple times by eels that are several feet long, and describes it as feeling as though "you put your finger in an electric outlet. It's very unpleasant and you kind of pull your finger away." --Catherine Garcia