Jellies Gee Up Japan

By: Dr Andrew Impey

Sloopy, gloopy, gooey, sticky - slime may not sound too appealing but the world would be lost without it.

Slugs and snails need it to get across the garden path; seaweeds use it to keep the sun off; and frogs wouldn't be able to absorb oxygen through their skin if they weren't slimy.

We even have it up our noses and down our windpipes to lubricate and protect our airways. What's more, we wouldn't be able to smell things properly if we didn't have a hooter full of slimy mucus.

However, there is one type of animal that has taken the slimy crown - jellyfish. And they're celebrating in force.

The seas of Japan are literally swarming with giant Nomura's jellyfish. At two metres across and weighing more than 200 kilograms, these creatures are the undisputed heavyweight champions of slime.
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In coastal communities that rely on fishing as a main trade, the giant jellyfish are wreaking havoc. Due to their huge size and numbers they often break fishing nets and damage rigs, as well as poisoning fish caught in the same haul.

Smaller jellyfish are also causing problems by blocking cooling systems intakes to major power plants and turning beaches into jellyfish graveyards.

It's not clear why there has been a sudden surge in jellyfish numbers over the past few years. Numerous theories have been put forward, including the possibility that predators of the jellyfish are in decline due to over-fishing; warmer oceans are improving living conditions and increased harbour construction is providing more space for juvenile jellyfish to develop.

Whatever the reasons behind it, the situation has got out of hand; fisherman can no longer simply throw these creatures back into the seas because of their sheer numbers and size.

From jelly to lolly

In response a team of Japanese scientists set to work to find out how best to cope with the slimy swarms.

By studying jellyfish corpses, researchers uncovered something rather interesting: jellyfish are rich in certain proteins known as mucins.

Mucins are large, sugar-coated proteins; we have loads of them in the mucus of our airways and digestive tracts. In fact, anywhere that an inner surface of your body can come into contact with something external, there will be a layer of protective mucus.

The Japanese scientists are hoping that they can use jellyfish mucins to grease the wheels of progress.

They want to exploit the proteins' tendency to form gel-like materials. This property can be exploited in the food industry for example, using the material as an emulsifier in food. It may also prove vital in the cosmetics industry as a moisturiser.

The researchers have even named the proteins 'qniumucin' from the Japanese word 'kuniumu' meaning 'rebirth of a country'. Japan is hoping to turn the hoards of slimy jellyfish littering their coastline into a national resource.

There could be medical benefits too. Remedies for certain digestive diseases used to contain mucins extracted from cows but these were taken off the market due to fears over BSE 'Mad Cow Disease'. If researchers can prove there is no adverse immune reaction in humans, qniumucin could soon be used in medicines worldwide.

Perhaps the Japanese are really onto something here - recycling the slimy corpses littering their beaches and potentially exploiting it to their economic and environmental benefit. Slime really is helping the world go round.

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Andy worked for four years studying ducks (no stop laughing, he really did). He went into his PhD thinking he was going to save the world (albeit from ducks) and now spends him time lovingly preening strange but true and other aspects of null-hypothesis

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