In the waters of Australia, researchers have been trying to milk the venom of a creature with one of the world's deadliest stings: the box jellyfish. Their sting can stop a human heart from pumping blood within minutes, all the while the victim suffers excruciating pain. So why would anybody want to get up close and personal to milk one?
Venomous creatures, such as snakes and spiders, have been milked for their venom in the past. Bryan Fry, associate professor from the University of Queensland, explained that "Without this raw material, life-saving anti-venom cannot be developed, and we can't study how venom components can be developed into new drugs."
While research on snake venom is abundant, research on jellyfish venom is sorely lacking. More papers are published on snake venom in a single year than the total number of papers on jellyfish venom ever.
The scarcity of jellyfish venom isn't through lack of trying, though, it's just genuinely difficult to extract, especially in the quantities needed for sustainable and meaningful research.
"Jellyfish and other cnidarians are the oldest living venomous creatures, but research has been hampered by a lack of readily obtainable venom harvested in a reproducible manner," Fry lamented. However, the tides on jellyfish venom research may be changing with Fry's new harvesting technique, the details of which have been published in the journal Toxins.
The new method uses a counterintuitive substance to encourage the sea creature to secrete its venom: ethanol. The ethanol prompts the venom cells, called nematocysts, in the tentacles to fire and squirt out venom. This fresh venom can be collected immediately and is mostly uncontaminated.
The use of ethanol is interesting because it actually exacerbates a jellyfish sting if splashed onto the damaged skin. "It is very much a case of doing something that would be the wrong thing from a first-aid perspective, which ironically turns out to be an extremely simple field technique to obtain high-quality venom," said Fry.
This technique is superior to previous jellyfish milking methods. Some took up to two weeks to collect venom while others only gave a small yield of pure venom. The risk of the venom becoming contaminated with jellyfish mucus was incredibly likely as well. “Our method is a practical one that can be used in the field with high efficiency, so it removes a major bottleneck from jellyfish venom research," said Fry.
Of course, some challenges remain. Jellyfish aren't happy living in captivity, which means researchers must trek through the Australian wilderness – if not through the cyclone-prone areas then through crocodile territory – to find one of the deadliest sea creatures with a sting so painful it causes humans to go into shock.
Central Image: Bryan Fry proudly holding up a jellyfish. University of Queensland.