Monday, October 01, 2007

Getting out of a jam with jellies

One jellyfish can throw a swimmer into a panic, but relentless swarms can disrupt entire economies. Recent, dramatic increases in jellyfish populations—for reasons ranging from overfishing to the impact of global warming on coastal ecosystems—have had equally dramatic effects on human communities.

Several coastal power plants in Japan have been damaged or shut down entirely by the accumulation of tons of jellyfish bodies within their cooling systems, and fishermen in the Sea of Japan now find themselves confronted by nets full of jellyfish—including one particularly massive species (Fig. 1). Removing and disposing of these jellyfish bodies in an economically feasible way represents a major challenge, but a recent discovery by Kiminori Ushida and colleagues at the RIKEN Discovery Research Institute, Wako, and Shinwa Chemical Industries, Kyoto, may offer new hope.

“I know a lot about the economic situation with waste that requires compensation for the cost of collection, transportation and disposal,” Ushida explains. “I felt that figuring out how to make money from jellyfish waste is essential for cleaning up and protecting the environment.” Ushida’s group set about performing a series of extractions on different jellyfish species, and identified a novel protein that consistently appeared in every sample (1). It turned out to be a glycoprotein—a class of proteins naturally linked to sugar molecules—from a family known as mucins.

Mucins are found in many plant and animal species, and are currently used as additives for a number of commercial applications, ranging from cosmetics to medicines. Ushida’s team named their protein ‘qniumucin’, a play on the word ‘kuniumi’; this term from Japanese history refers to the early government that arose to provide stability to a once-disorganized country. “I am worried about the terrible situation of people living in the districts where the ancient Japanese government originated, who are suffering because of these giant jellyfish,” says Ushida, “and I hope that this material will generate new industry in the district, like the ‘rebirth of the countryside’.”

Indeed, qniumucin shows a great deal of promise—its structure is simple and well-understood, making it a candidate for further engineering to enhance particular characteristics. For example, some mucins have proven to be effective as antibiotics. Accordingly, Ushida’s top priority is to make qniumucin extraction as profitable as possible. “We are developing designer mucins to enhance certain functions of our protein,” he says, “and many companies are interested in finding effective commercial uses for qniumucin.”

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