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OU biologist awarded NSF CAREER grant for research of the electric fish

University of Oklahoma

A University of Oklahoma biology professor will study the unique bioelectric signaling system of the electric fish, an analysis that could eventually benefit people's health. The OU researcher is working to understand how these fish manage the energy required to produce the signals used to map the world around them. Electric fish generate electric signals at a rate of 500-600 discharges a second throughout their lives. The energetic demands required for the electric fish are extreme, but necessary for survival.

"There is evidence that electric fish have hormonal systems that help manage the signal output in terms of energy. They proactively conserve the energy needed when oxygen levels are low," said Michael Markham, assistant professor in the Department of Biology, OU College of Arts and Sciences. "At the cellular level, sodium enters through a gate to create the electrical current. After every discharge, the sodium has to be pumped out using large amounts of energy."

"We don't understand how the pump can efficiently move the sodium out of the cell so it can rush back in," said Markham. "Understanding how the pump works in the electric fish has implications for animals in other environments, and possibly, in health research. Heart failure, for instance, often develops as these pumps no longer work efficiently. This research might lead to a better understanding of how to prevent or delay this process."

At the Integrative Neurobiology Laboratory, Markham focuses on the neurobiology of animal communication signals, their development, endocrine control and evolutionary context. He uses the weakly electric fish as a model system because these fish generate and detect electric fields in the water as a means of communicating and imaging their world.


For more information about the electric fish and this project, email

A National Science Foundation CAREER grant in the amount of $716,000 supports this project over five years and will lead to broader impacts through the integration of research and education. Markham and his students have been proactive in teaching others about the electric fish. At science museums and retirement communities in Oklahoma, the young and old display enthusiasm and fascination when introduced to the electric fish.

The Faculty Early Career Development Program is a Foundation-wide activity that offers the National Science Foundation's most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.

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