Moon Jellyfish Life Cycle Controlled In A Lab; Discovery Could Prevent Disruptive Jellyfish Invasions

By Ben Wolford on January 16, 2014 1:01 PM EST

Jellyfish
A huge influx of jellyfish clogged a water pipe at the Oskarshamn Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden over the weekend. Operators were able to remove the clog on Tuesday. (Photo: Reuters)

Just like humans, jellyfish go through a kind of puberty. Unlike humans, for jellyfish it happens to every single individual at the exact same time: spring. Scientists in Japan announced Thursday they have found the secret hormone that causes the synchronized puberty, and, best of all, they say they can manipulate the moon jellyfish life cycle themselves using a synthetic impostor hormone.

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Moon jellyfish go through a life cycle that takes them on a journey from small blob to bigger blob with tentacles to, eventually, the eerie translucent form we commonly see. About halfway through this cycle, they are small, asexual polyps. And they remain that way as a hormone unique to the species Aurelia aurita builds up inside them during the winter. When the cold water gives way to warmer springtime temperatures, the change triggers the hormone's release. And suddenly there are a ton of full-blown jellyfish floating around, a phenomenon known as a jellyfish bloom.

In October, moon jellyfish issued forth near the Oskarshamn nuclear reactor in Sweden in the Baltic Sea coast. So many bloomed and scattered in search of food that they clogged a pump that sucks seawater into the plant to cool the turbine. It shut down the reactor for days while engineers cleaned the pipes.

"This biological understanding might offer new methods for controlling moon jellyfish blooms, which can sometimes mean trouble for fisheries and other human endeavors," reports Cell Press, which published the article describing the research in its journal Current Biology. In nature, the jellyfish transformation takes weeks. In lab experiments, the scientists induced the metamorphosis in just 48 hours. "Now we know in detail why and how Aurelia polyps turn into jellyfishes," says author Dr. Konstantin Khalturin of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology. "We are also able to control polyp-to-jellyfish transition with an extremely powerful chemical inducer."

Khalturin says with the right chemical, they could control the jellyfish bloom of an entire "medium-sized bay." But finding the right chemical may be tricky, he cautioned. They would need to identify one that wouldn't harm any other wildlife. As for the jellyfish, the idea actually is to harm them. Well, kill them.

He says they'll induce the metamorphosis during the winter, when there's not much to eat. "Young jellyfish with nothing to eat will die, and there would be no jellyfish bloom the following summer," Cell Press reports. Scientists already do this with mosquitos that carry malaria. While this may be good for nuclear reactors and the people who rely on their energy, PETA will not be happy.

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