Jellyfish are some of the world’s most fascinating creatures with the way they seem to float along and go with the current.
Not only is the species incredibly diverse, with a range of small, clear microscopic organisms to huge box jellyfish, but they have properties that still confound scientists, researchers, and medical professionals alike. Unlike humans and most animals, jellyfish do not have a heart or a brain; they are made up almost entirely of water. The body structures of these creatures are very simple, but the chemistry and science behind them are often complex and mysterious.
For example, the prospect of immortality for jellyfish, at least for a few specific species, has been proposed and is currently being investigated. Some scientists believe that jellyfish have the ability to regenerate themselves with a new set of cells when they are feeling threatened or are undergoing a traumatic experience, and this ability has the potential to help with cancer treatment and cures for other serious illnesses. But in order to understand jellyfish as a species, we first must understand the chemistry and the science behind their existence and their stings.
The Venom in Jellyfish Stings
Most of the time, jellyfish are relatively gentle and prefer to keep to themselves. However, just because jellyfish attacks are uncommon, doesn’t mean that they can’t be deadly, and painful. The main chemical in the venom of jellyfish is a toxin called porin, and it is composed of amino acids that can cause normally tough cell membranes to break down, resulting in harmful chemicals leaking into the bloodstream. One of the most lethal poisons is called glycosylation, which attaches to carbohydrates, while the porin breaks down red blood cells, a process that releases potassium.
Potassium on its own is not necessarily dangerous-after all, we need a certain amount to live-but if too much of it is let into the body at once, it can cause dangerous consequences. One of our most important bodily functions is maintaining homeostasis, a fancy way of saying that all substances have to be kept at a proper level. Once a person is stung by a jellyfish, the heart and other organs are forced to work harder to try to flush out the excess of toxins.
This sudden influx of activity can cause the heart to go into cardiac arrest, as well as other kinds of organ failure, including that of kidneys. The body becomes so overwhelmed that the nervous system can no longer send signals to the brain about what is going on, and can result in serious harm.
Common Misconceptions About Sting Treatment
You may have heard the popular advice that urine can help ease the pain of a jellyfish sting, or seen the Friends episode from which this theory originated. However, the exact opposite is actually true, and once again, the reasoning behind this comes back to chemistry. In order for the pain from the sting to be neutralized, the neutralizer has to have the correct chemical makeup, and urine simply doesn’t; it only irritates the wound.
Another substance that is often thought to help with jellyfish stings in cold freshwater. But freshwater is missing the chemical elements that are found in saltwater, so it does not help the healing process. However, saltwater does. It may seem contradictory since the phrase “rubbing salt into the wound” often means that someone is making a bad situation worse, but saltwater is much better for treating jellyfish stings than freshwater because of the sodium chloride in the saltwater.
Saltwater is used as a treatment for the stings, as are acidic solutions. Like saltwater, an acidic substance seems like it would only make the wound worse, but the pH level and the chemical makeup help with healing. Vinegar is a common solution to use, and although it is not the most effective treatment, it is a common household item and can help reduce the harmful effects of the jellyfish venom.
Studying the poison in the stings and bites of poisonous snakes, bees, and other insects gave scientists and researchers more information about how the venom in jellyfish hurts humans, and about the chemical makeup of the poison. These new discoveries help us learn more about medical applications of jellyfish, safety for beach-goers, and finding out more about these fascinating, mysterious creatures.