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An electric eel’s version of Energy Star

It never ceases to amaze me the extent to which nature beats man to the punch when it comes to coming up with innovative solutions. There’s a reason, after all, that so much of engineering is biomimicry.

image One cool example of nature coming up with a solution to a problem humans rea dealing with is something I recently encountered is from a journal article from the open access journal PLoS Biology (meaning that you don’t need to pay to read the article) on electric fish. While most people think of electric eels which are known to stun prey with electrical discharges when they think of electric fish, but there are many species of electric fish which use weaker types of electrical discharges for navigating (“electroclocation” – like echolocation, but with electricity) or communication.

Just like humans eventually did, electric fish have discovered that … electricity is costly to produce. These electric fish might not pay dollars and cents for said electricity, but they pay for it in terms of calories (they need to consume extra food to sustain their electrical abilities) and, for some species, in terms of being easily detected by electroreceptive predators (predators who can detect electrical fields).

A team of researchers at UT Austin and Florida International University studied a particular species of electric fish – the longtail knifefish (Sternopygus macrurus) and found that they were able to lower the strength of their emitted electrical fields by ~40%! This lowering of “power consumption” (to misuse the term) was triggered to changes in the day (these electric fish are more active at night, so they turn it up when the sun goes down and turn it down when the sun comes up) and when they were being social.

This, in turn, was all found to be controlled by a hormonal system that is analogous to the biological clock that controls when you or I feel like we need to sleep or wake up. These hormones triggered a change in the sodium channel proteins (like the ones that transmit our brain signals through our nerves) which moved them from their active position to an inactive position, increasing or lowering the knifefish’s electrical output.

I’ll leave those more interested in the biological details to check out the paper (which is very readable, even for novices), but I only hope that it takes humans less than the millions of years evolution that the longtail knifefish needed to solve its energy problems. After all, all we need is some sort of hormonal system (Higher prices at different times of the day? Smart grid signals?) that pushes our power consumption (Electronics which have different levels of power consumption, kind of like what some of today’s chips have? Maybe adaptive lighting/cooling/heating? Smart grid technology?) to different levels…

Paper: Markham MR, McAnelly ML, Stoddard PK, Zakon HH (2009) Circadian and Social Cues Regulate Ion Channel Trafficking. PLoS Biol 7(9): e1000203. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000203

(Image credit – Wikipedia)

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