21 December 2017

The secret superpowers of jellyfish

We know remarkably little about the tens of thousands of jellies species in our oceans. So scientists are searching for deep-sea jellyfish to decode their genes.

Jellyfish are amazing,

incredible, unearthly. You can get things that are shaped like a biplane, things that are a bunch of tubes connected to each other. Comb jellies have these little paddles that are like eyelashes. And when those catch the light, they break the light into rainbow patterns. There's siphonophores, which can curl up like a chandelier. It's almost like they're ice sculptures, because they're so transparent and shimmering. The words that would come to mind, for most people, for jellyfish: nasty, stingy, slimy, gooey. A lot of them can't even sting at all. Even though, you know, birds and bats both have wings, they're not very closely related to each other. And the same thing in the ocean, where you can get things that are more closely related to us. They’re called salps. You can get these big long ones, called siphonophores. They’re totally independent lines of animal life. A lot of the challenge in getting, I think, a true understanding of jellies is that we have very limited ways of experiencing them, and actually seeing them alive. And only recently, with technology, these remotely operated submarines, can we go down, and take a video of a jellyfish that lives a thousand, three thousand, ten thousand feet below the surface. We’re at a site called Mid-Water One.

Down here, there’s all these creatures that look really strange, compared to what people are used to seeing in the wilderness, or if they go for a walk in the forest. Jellyfish have this special superpower, which is the ability to make light. We don't know what genes or chemicals make their bioluminescence. We don't even know how many of them are bioluminescent. There’s just layer upon layer of unanswered questions about all these organisms. So, as you’re scanning the field, you, kind of, are looking for blobs that register as certain organisms. Let’s look at this red guy here. Zoom in and take a picture of it. Let’s go ahead and suck it up. Once the vehicle comes up, and the organism goes into that sampler, then we can close the doors, and capture the water and the organism with it at the same time. It’s really, really rare to be able to actually capture the organism that you’ve seen in the deep sea, and bring it back to the surface to study it. And there’s a huge range of topics that we can study once we have the organism in hand. Bolinopsis after all. I’m gonna check it. We immediately photograph them. But then, in a lot of cases, we actually freeze them, so that we can sequence their DNA. We're using the genetics to help us figure out, kind of, the secrets of how they can live and breathe at those depths.

But also who they're eating, and the genes they use for their bioluminescence. So we're trying to piece together these puzzles, using the genes as a guide. In the early 80s, they actually cloned the gene that gave the jellyfish the ability to make this green fluorescent protein. And you can use that gene to label, make essentially a highlighter, that you can use in the lab for almost any process. So you can label where neurons are expressed, you can label where tumors are growing. And this tool became so useful, as a genetic highlighter, that it was awarded the Nobel Prize, and now it's this huge, multimillion-dollar industry. This really was driven by a lot of curiosity about, how do these organisms do that? How do they make light? How do they control it turning on and off? I still have more questions than I started out with. So, to me it’s still a fascination. Our son has a book called “The Big Book of Beasts,” which is a great book, but everything in there has four limbs and two eyes. They're all basically vertebrates. Cat. And that little slice of diversity, if you think of the whole tree, even just the tree of animal life, is just a tiny twig on the tip of this whole tree. Life can take on so many different forms. And in the ocean, they can be so different

from anything that people expect. They're actually so diaphanous, and beautiful, and ethereal, that it expands your imagination to see these organisms, and to see the different ways that life can succeed.