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Journal of Experimental Biology partnership with Dryad

Development and regeneration of the electric organ
H.H. Zakon, G.A. Unguez


The electric organ has evolved independently from muscle in at least six lineages of fish. How does a differentiated muscle cell change its fate to become an electrocyte? Is the process by which this occurs similar in different lineages? We have begun to answer these questions by studying the formation and maintenance of electrocytes in the genus Sternopygus, a weakly electric teleost. Electrocytes arise from the fusion of fully differentiated muscle fibers, mainly those expressing fast isoforms of myosin. Electrocytes briefly co-express sarcomeric proteins, such as myosin and tropomyosin, and keratin, a protein not found in mature muscle. The sarcomeric proteins are subsequently down-regulated, but keratin expression persists. We investigated whether the maintenance of the electrocyte phenotype depends on innervation. We found that, after spinal cord transection, which silences the electromotor neurons that innervate the electrocytes, or destruction of the spinal cord, which denervates the electrocytes, mature electrocytes re-express sarcomeric myosin and tropomyosin, although keratin expression persists. Ultrastructural examination of denervated electrocytes revealed nascent sarcomeres. Thus, the maintenance of the electrocyte phenotype depends on neural activity.