One question that scientists have never fully unravelled is how the sting of jellyfish works and why the stings of different species ‘sting’ differently. Some new research conducted by Heidelberg University provides some answers.
According to the AlphaGalielo Association, Professors Dr. Thomas Holstein and Dr. Suat Özbek from the Centre for Organismal Studies (COS) of Heidelberg University have assessed the chemicals which make up the ‘sting’ of the freshwater jellyfish called Hydra magnipapillata. Their analysis has revealed a complex mixture of toxic and structural proteins.
Jellyfish and certain other sea creatures are equipped with poison cells. This makes for a powerful venomous attack and defense mechanisms. The stinging cells are called nematocysts and are located on the outer cell layer of the skin of the jellyfish. In nature, the cells are used for capturing prey or for defense. The mechanism consists of a stinging capsule. Inside the capsule is a long tubule which turns inside out like the finger of a glove during discharge, thus releasing the deadly poison into the prey.
The energy for discharging the toxin can be stored in the stinging cells and released at rapid speed. The toxin paralyses the nervous system of the prey and destroys their cells. The injection of the toxins takes place at an extremely high pressure.
Until now, the biomechanical properties of these unique cellular weapons remained unknown. The recent study by the Heidelberg scientists have, by studying the Hydra species, unravelled the toxins. The research has found the toxins to be very complex.
According to a statement from Heidelberg University, the biologists discovered 410 proteins in the venom and also some fibrous material. The proteins of the stinging capsule wall were made from an unknown tissue-like matrix which surpasses the elasticity and tensile strength of even spider's silk.
These findings allow the Heidelberg researchers to explain how the energy for discharging the toxin can be stored in the stinging cells and then released from the elastic structure of the capsule wall in nanoseconds at an extraordinary speed.
The findings advance the understanding of how jellyfish sting their prey, why the stings vary and perhaps future drugs to deal with jellyfish stings.
The findings were published in:
P. G. Balasubramanian, et al. Proteome of Hydra Nematocyst. Journal of Biological Chemistry, 2012; 287 (13)