You never know when what at first seemed like an innocuous bit of research will turn into the next big tool to help prevent or mitigate the symptoms of a major disease. Coincidental discoveries like that happen all the time and small parts of nature can turn out to have applications we never would have imagined until one group of scientists decided to take that step and imagine it. Zoological studies, especially, can find features of the animal world that can come into play in robots, nanotechnology, or, indeed, biotechnology itself.

That is just what we’re here to talk about today. Let’s start with a catfish. When it comes to unique traits of living species, electromagnetism is one of the more unique out there. Some may have the capability to generate electrical fields themselves, while others may merely be able to sense their presence. But there should be no putting down of the creatures that can detect and respond to the fluctuations of the Earth’s magnetic field on a global scale. We still have no concrete idea on how they are capable of this feat, only hypotheses.

The Unknown Gene

The glass catfish, Kryptopterus bicirrhis, is a resident of the Asian archipelago region north and northwest of Australia. It has been known for many a year that it has this mysterious skill in its repertoire. A collaboration between Michigan State University and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine sought to find the genetic component that controls this mechanism. Using electromagnetic field readers, they were able to first isolate a protein and then a gene, an electromagnetic perceptive gene (EPG) to be precise, responsible for this electrical field response.

Though they were able to locate it, the researchers were unable to determine how it functions or confers the things it clearly does onto the catfish. What they were able to figure out though is a suggestion that some sort of depolarization of the electroreceptor organ due to calcium signaling appears to play a part. The specific manner in which this gene works is unlike anything else found in nature and a greater breakdown of its activity may help in any number of other fields.

After analyzing the EPG protein using bioinformatics, they decided that it is likely to have protein-protein binding domains, allowing it to interface with other proteins. Based on the probable candidates, it seemed like it could interact with the sodium ion channels in neurons and potentially have neuromodulation properties. Thus, as a test, neuronal cells were produced expressing the EPG gene and, when magnetically stimulated, showed a multiple seconds delay in calcium signaling.

An Expansive Possibility

They hope to be able to alter this response over time to reduce this delay to milliseconds, but even with this larger delay, it appears that EPG creates neurons that can be modulated on a single cell level and only under specific induction when this effect is wanted. The implications of all of this are quite likely more profound than what we can see in the study itself.

For health conditions that result in tremors and shakes, such as Parkinson’s, and even full blown seizure conditions, this might be a noninvasive answer to that problem. Up until now, a main method of treating these problems has been brain surgery, where electrodes are inserted in order to be able to alter the neuronal states causing the shaking disorders. While this is all just a symptom based treatment and doesn’t fix the overall illness, it is still highly beneficial as palliative care for patients.

The people with these disorders could have vectors carrying the gene injected into a particular group of cells in the brain, depending on the trouble area, and have it be expressed by those same cells. A specialized magnet in a frame could then be used to activate the gene when needed as a way to control the tremors, though would likely not stop them entirely.

Discovery Is Just The Beginning

A co-author for the study is also currently looking into engineering stem cells that express EPG, with the intent of eventually making patient-specific stem cells with the gene that can be inserted into the brain and help without the need for electrodes. Other electrical systems in the body, such as the heart, may also benefit from this treatment for those with irregular electrical field heart conditions. For now, further research into the function of the gene and its protein is required to be able to more fully utilize it in medical treatments.

All in all, as an alternative treatment to highly invasive and life-threatening surgeries, this new possibility is almost a godsend for those suffering from such issues. Since it has only just been discovered, there is still a long path to even determine how well it would work in practice, but finding it in the first place is more than half the battle.

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Study Link

Photo CCs: Certain brain regions light up during specific cognitive function, this is how internal processes are linked to behaviour such as learning from Wikimedia Commons

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