$1.5 million NSF grant to explore secrets of electric fish genome

Credit: Photo by G.L. Kohuth

EAST LANSING, Mich. – Electric fish have been a model biology system since the 18th century. Their potential, though, has been mostly isolated to neurological studies. Thanks to the recent availability of electric fish genome sequences, Michigan State University researchers hope to harness the power of CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing in electric fish to make a new type of model for biology.

MSU has landed a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant to develop this cutting-edge technique in electric fish and afford more researchers easy access to this versatile model. Electric fish have already provided deep insights into the very nature of bioelectrogenesis – the ability to produce electric fields outside the body – as well as the molecular structure of the synapse, and granted unprecedented insights into the brain circuitry underlying complex behavior.

Jason Gallant, MSU integrative biologist who’s leading the grant, believes they could be the model organisms for a new generation of studies that help decode the function of their genomes. He hopes to kick-start research programs that are trying to investigate the connection between genes encoded in the DNA electric fish, and phenotypes, the physical expression of traits encoded by those genes.

“Making this connection is an important goal across disciplines of biology, and we want to develop a robust, accessible and easily transferable gene manipulation toolbox to allow the electric fish model to help achieve that goal,” Gallant said. “These all-purpose tools then can be applied to a full range of questions under investigation, regardless of a researcher’s background.”

It doesn’t matter if scientists are focusing on molecules, cells, organ systems, behaviors or macroevolutionary processes like speciation, Gallant and his team believes these high-tech tools could be used to accelerate their research.

A critical step for genetic and medicinal advances is having lines of mutant models, such as mice, zebrafish or fruit flies. Using CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technologies, Gallant’s team will be able to generate mutant lines of transgenic electric fish as well.

Gallant’s team is composed of researchers from the University of Oklahoma, the University of Texas, Columbia University and the Genome Institute at Washington University in St. Louis. They will work to create large colonies of electric fish at MSU and the University of Oklahoma, and develop new techniques for “knocking down” gene function using morpholinos and introducing foreign genetic material using retroviruses.

Gallant’s team will rapidly share these new research tools by coordinating workshops and websites to broaden participation in the field and train the next generation of electric fish biologists to harness these powerful new techniques.

Gallant’s lab and others around the U.S. have already provided a proof-of-concept of the model’s strength. Now they’re hoping to scale up their efforts, no pun intended.

“Currently, our lab is leading efforts in acquiring new genomic data, but there are no techniques to rigorously test hypotheses about the functions of genes that could potentially yield insights in developmental biology, neuroscience, behavior and evolution, just to name a few,” Gallant said. “Developing genetic tools for monitoring and manipulating gene activity in electric fish would revolutionize the field and enable a wave of new studies that exploit the unique features of these organisms for addressing central questions in biology at a level of resolution not possible in other vertebrate systems.”


Michigan State University has been working to advance the common good in uncommon ways for more than 150 years. One of the top research universities in the world, MSU focuses its vast resources on creating solutions to some of the world’s most pressing challenges, while providing life-changing opportunities to a diverse and inclusive academic community through more than 200 programs of study in 17 degree-granting colleges.

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