Electroporation is a technique in which scientists use a pulse of electricity to briefly open the pores of cells in order to insert other DNA, medicine, or other chemicals. Apparently, electric eels sometimes do the same thing. Scientists determined that they can release enough electricity to affect the genes of nearby fish.
"I realized that electric eels in the Amazon River could well act as a power source, organisms living in the surrounding area could act as recipient cells and environmental DNA fragments released into the water would become foreign genes, causing genetic recombination in the surrounding organisms because of electric discharge," says Nagoya University biologist Atsuo Iida, a leading researcher on the project.
To test this idea, they set up a laboratory experiment with a tank full of water. Scientists placed zebrafish larvae in the tank, then added a DNA solution with a gene that would make fish glow fluorescent green. Next, they put an eel in the tank and fed it an anesthetized goldfish, which prompted it to discharge 185-volt pulses of electricity, reports New Scientist's Melissa Hobson.
One day later, some of the zebrafish larvae began to glow green, suggesting the fluorescent DNA solution had been transferred from the water into their cells.
According to a statement from Nagoya University, "other studies have observed a similar phenomenon occurring with naturally occurring fields, such as lightning, affecting nematodes and soil bacteria. Iida is very excited about the possibilities of electric field research in living organisms. He believes these effects are beyond what conventional wisdom can understand. He said, "I believe that attempts to discover new biological phenomena based on such 'unexpected' and 'outside-the-box' ideas will enlighten the world about the complexities of living organisms and trigger breakthroughs in the future.'"