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"Elec-trick" -- The Discovery Files

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Fish known as "baby whales" possess a protein that enables them to communicate using electrical signals, and thus avoid predators. Turns out, this same protein exists in the hearts and muscles of humans, and a better understanding of its function could lead to improved treatments for heart conditions and diseases such as epilepsy.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Fished signals.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

(Sound effect: underwater sounds) It's as if these fish can I.M. each other. Only instead of a tiny fish phone or other device, they're emitting electrical pulses to keep up with their BFFs -- best fish friends, and to navigate.

Certain fish -- one commonly referred to as a "Baby Whale" -- have developed a unique security system. It produces incredibly short pulses of electricity -- a few tenths of a thousandth of a second -- that lets them communicate and navigate while eluding the highly sensitive electric detection systems of a major predator: catfish.

It's an evolutionary trick that researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and Michigan State have found might shed light on human illnesses. Seems the "fish blips" rely on a protein also found in the hearts and muscles of humans. The team believes what they've learned from the origin and mechanics of this signaling ability could apply to the treatment of epilepsy, where electrical pulses in the brain and muscles cause seizures. Their findings could also give us insights on migraines and some heart conditions -- also related to electrical signals and their pathways.

Sounds like the electric fish are giving us a message too.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at nsf.gov or on our podcast.

 
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