You, Me and the Sea Jelly

Parveena Soorianarayanan
MBBS Year 4
Newcastle University

Humans have and will never be alone. We have progressed schematically alongside other species, though some pieces of our evolutionary journey still remain a mystery. However, evolution is not the sole answer to our advancements. Throughout history, the jellyfish have undergone immensely little evolution throughout their lifetime, yet show no signs of slowing down. This begs the question: was human evolution necessary to ensure the survival of our species? What can we learn from creatures without a central nervous system? What is in store for us, modern medicine and the future? Can the human brain work with a literal no-brainer?

According to Charles Darwin’s legendary work of literature “On the Origin of the Species”, Homo sapiens commenced the lengthy process of evolution 200,000 years ago. While we have made excellent progress since then, it would be imprecise to cite evolution as the prime reason for our advancements. Presently, our evolution has adopted a semi-artificial approach driven by climate change, advancements in healthcare, increasing rates of zoonoses and many more.

Jellyfish predate human existence by an impressive lead of 500 million years, yet remain faithful to their ancestral bell-and-tentacle phenotype. They do not possess a central nervous system. Their venom has traumatized those who live to tell the tale. Despite their relatively static evolutionary status and infamous claim to fame, human interest has propelled their role in modern medicine.

Jellyfish accustomed to inhabiting challenging depths of the ocean naturally produce a bioluminescent light, possibly as a compensation for the lack of sunlight. This bioluminescence is theorized to serve as an inter-species communication tool as well for evasion from predators. The discovery of Aequorea victoria and its bioluminescent light, now attributed to Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) has paved the way for a new generation of fluorescence microscopy owing to the fact that it is less phototoxic compared to its predecessor, fluorescein isothiocyanate. With this understanding, GFP appears to be an ideal adjunct to imaging modalities. In 2019, researchers tagged GFP onto Pseudomonas aeruginosa to assess the extent of bacterial infection via magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This could serve as an alternative to blood cultures or tissue biopsies in humans, which are clearly more invasive. If the GFP becomes more widely accepted as a natural contrast, it could eventually be utilized by other larger imaging modalities such as positron emission tomography (PET).

Turritopsis nutricula has emerged as an organism of interest due to its seemingly unremitting life cycle. Although this mechanism is still poorly appreciated, the basic principle is the ability of the jellyfish to ‘reverse’ its adult cells back into childhood, effectively restarting reproduction. This paradox allows for research in cell regeneration, particularly the creation of synthetic stem cells. Synthetic stem cells have been proven to be more durable compared to human stem cells and need not be derived from patients directly a particular advantage for patients with genetic mutations affecting their biological stem cells. If we can comprehend this strange metamorphosis, we could be possibly looking at better prognoses for malignancies, as well as slowing down the natural aging process and increasing human life expectancy.

The infamous venom which stopped many hearts is the same one being used in the process of creating an antidote. In 2020, researchers at the University of Sydney queued millions of human cells lacking a single variable gene in each one, before introducing them to a cocktail of potent box jellyfish venom. Cells that survived the attack were replicated with the comprehension that the antidote will require a similar morphology to the survivor cells. Although topical preparations of the antidote are thought to reduce the effects of tissue necrosis, scarring and pain, future studies should concentrate on its ability in preventing cardiac arrest. Emergency medical service (EMS) personnel should be trained in recognizing and providing immediate ventilatory support in potent jellyfish stings. Public education, especially in high-risk areas, is of crucial importance – and the obsolete myth “pee on a jellyfish sting” should be completely erased from people’s minds!

Death is a reality for humans. The prospect of immortality as depicted by the highly efficient Turritopsis dohrnii is certainly thrilling but will undoubtedly invoke objections from ethical, economic and religious standpoints. However, who is to blame for desiring a longer life? The COVID-19 pandemic is a grim reminder that we disregard life until we are at the brink of death. Deep in our subconscious, we all yearn for the Macbethian ambition of “tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow…”. The lack of evolution alone does not fully account for the jellyfish’s unusually long reign. Perhaps they possess intelligence that is impossible to decipher. Perhaps the answer is to tranquilize the thinking mind and allow life. After all, jellyfish have mastered that art.

Reference (Mar-21-A2)

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