Jellies are tough to study. Some are so fragile that they’ll explode when they’re touched. Others travel across remote stretches of the ocean. Imagine trying to house a bus-sized lion’s mane jelly in a lab, or track a jelly the size of a contact lens across the ocean. Because jellies have so much to teach us, scientists are thinking creatively about how to overcome these challenges.
What can we learn from jellies?
• University researchers are developing a search and rescue robot for the U.S. Navy that mimics the motion of jelly movement. By using hydrogen to make its bell pulse, this “robojelly” creates its own potentially unlimited energy supply.
• One tiny jelly may be immortal: The dainty parachute-shaped Turritopsis nutricul can revert from its adult phase back into a polyp, and into an adult again. Scientists think that these jellies may be able to cycle back and forth forever, unless they’re eaten by predators.
• Researchers are studying the chemistry of jelly stings to find better ways to treat them. A recent discovery—that clownfish have mucus that protects them from the stings of anemones (relatives of jellies)—led scientists to develop a protective cream for people.
• Crystal jellies produce light using green fluorescent protein in their cells. When scientists learned to put this protein, known as GFP, into other kinds of cells, they found they could illuminate the cells to examine them more closely. Today, using GFP is common in biomedicine. It’s led to discoveries in tumor development and the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
• Studying the way jellies pulse their bells to propel themselves has inspired scientists to design energy-efficient underwater vehicles.
• Biophysicist Dr. John Dabiri received a MacArthur Award for his research on how jellies move, which he’s using to test new ways for diagnosing early heart disease.
What makes jelly research a challenge?
• Scientists don't have any significant historical information about blooms, so it's hard to put today's big blooms into context.
• In the past, jellies weren’t usually studied on their own. Instead, information about them came from jellies that were caught in fishing nets. As a result, what we knew was often limited to larger species, since smaller ones slipped through the nets or came apart in the mesh.
• Jellies can be difficult to tag for tracking: Tags can make them sink or travel straight through their gelatinous tissues. Researchers are in the process of developing and using smaller tags.
• Acoustic monitoring can work for larger jellies but often misses small ones.
• Scientists can learn about sea jellies by analyzing the gut contents of jelly predators, but research on this topic is in the early stages.