At the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, a group of high school girls point their iPads at a tank of amber-colored sea nettle jellyfish, videotaping the pulsating parachute-shaped creatures. Although the gelatinous animals’ rhythmic undulations induce calmness, I am grateful for the thick glass separating me from their lacy but stinging appendages, which can paralyze prey in a microsecond.
Over the centuries, how to get fast relief from jellyfish stings has dominated most discussions of them, but in recent decades scientific discoveries of their benefits have been making headlines.
“They are a fascinating area for further study,” says Steve Haddock, a research scientist at the aquarium’s research institute. “Many species are still being seen for the first time by humans.” Jellyfish, or jellies (the term many scientists prefer), have no bones or brain and are older than dinosaurs. “They appear so simple in form, yet accomplish relatively sophisticated behaviors, like luring fish, mimicry, and bioluminescence.”
The ability of some jellyfish species to produce light in their bodies has fascinated researchers and led to groundbreaking scientific discoveries in fluorescence and bioluminescence. In 1962, chemist and marine biologist Osamu Shimomura discovered that a protein that bound to calcium ions made the jellyfish Aequorea victoria glow when he isolated and purified green fluorescent protein (GFP), a genetic marker. It was the first photoprotein ever discovered, and Shimomura spent many years studying its molecular structure.
In the 1990s, other scientists helped propel GFP into the limelight after biochemist Douglas Prasher cloned it at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. Upon request, Prasher sent the clone to Martin Chalfie, a neurobiologist at Columbia University who discovered that GFP could be expressed in other living organisms. Prasher also sent the clone to Roger Tsien, a biochemist at the University of California, San Diego, who modified the protein to emit a spectrum of colors.
When the Nobel committee awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize to Shimomura, Chalfie, and Tsien for their work on GFP, the three laureates acknowledged Prasher’s contribution and paid for him to attend the Stockholm ceremony. At the time, Prasher was working as a shuttle driver, but he has since returned to research at Tsien’s Laboratory in San Diego.
“Successful innovation is a team sport,” said surgeon Quyen Nguyen about the quartet’s collaboration during a 2011 TED talk. Nguyen is a senior scientist in the Tsien Lab, which is taking the concept of fluorescent markers to new levels. They have designed a smart molecule to label tumors with fluorescent dye to show the surgeon in the operating room how far to cut without waiting for the tissue to be evaluated by a lab. The Tsien Lab also discovered a molecule that labels nerves. “Basically, we’ve come up with a way to stain tissue and color code the surgical field,” says Nguyen. “I think it will change the way we do surgery.”
Norman Maitland, a molecular biologist at the University of York, adapted the protein to help diagnose cancers deep in the body tissue and bone. “When a specially developed camera is switched on, the proteins just flare up and you can see where the cancer cells are,” he told the BBC News.
Potential applications seem to be as varied as the ocean itself. Monterey’s Haddock thinks one of the coolest applications for GFP is “Brainbow.” By applying Tsein’s spectrum of colors, Harvard scientists have developed a way to attach a rainbow of fluorescent proteins to the brain, which allows them to track neurological pathways.
Jellies for Arthritis
Jellyfish are turning up in labs across the country. Alabama’s Auburn University holds a patent on a collagen from cannonball jellies, which researcher Peggy Hsieh theorizes will be beneficial in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. Hsieh’s experiments have demonstrated that oral doses of jellyfish collagen have successfully suppressed arthritis in laboratory rats. The university is looking for a partner to test this further in hopes of creating a safe and inexpensive protein supplement.
Another jellyfish protein already on the market is Prevagen apoaequorin, a dietary supplement made by Quincy Bioscience. The synthetic Prevagen is based on the photoprotein isolated from A. victoria. According to founder and president Mark Underwood, the supplement keeps brain cells alive longer and improves concentration. Although Underwood claims that Prevagen might help us remember where we parked our cars while grocery shopping, the supplement is not FDA approved.
Massachusetts neuropsychologist Wayne L. Klein, who himself was a human guinea pig for the drug, says there is evidence that apoaequorin is neuroprotective inside the brain. The glitch is that it needs to be injected into the brain with a needle, he adds. Klein insists that we’d be better off reducing stress physiologically rather than pharmacologically, which might be attained simply by visiting an aquarium and watching the graceful acrobatics of luminescent jellyfish.