Jellyfish: Our Ancestor, Our End, Our Future

They are a bloom of amorphous, drifting, gelatinous and stringy zooplankton that crowd the oceans. They form one of the most abundant marine organisms in the sea. There are about about 38m tonnes of jellyfish in the ocean zones where enough light penetrate for photosynthesis. Being around for over 500 million years, jellyfish have some pretty amazing abilities. The Irukandji jellyfish, the smallest jellyfish, can deliver a sting 100 times more potent than a cobra bite. Meanwhile, the most venomous jellyfish known, the Chironex Fleckeri, can kill an adult man in just a few minutes, all while being mostly invisible.

Apart from their lethal stinging abilities, these sea jellies have some remarkable survival adaptations. Jellyfish are 95% water and made up of mostly mesoglea. They lack brains, spinal cords, circulatory systems, yet can sense ocean currents and external stimuli with a simple rudimentary nervous system. Jellyfish can inject their venom in less than a millionth of a second, being one of nature’s fastest biochemical processes. Some species of jellyfish, such as tropical-dwelling box jellyfishes, have eyes that see colour and form images in its nervous system.

Jellyfish ice cream [source]

Jellyfish are everywhere in the ocean and are even delicacies in several areas of Asia. In Thailand, jellyfish is present in a style of noodles or served in salad. A company in Japan, called Tango Jersey Dairy even makes vanilla and jellyfish ice cream! These strange bell-shaped creatures are terrifying, numerous, long-living and sometimes tasty, but these jellies could actually get even more fascinating. They could actually help us understand our lineage, show us how we could go extinct, and might even help us reach a future of immortality.

Descendants Of Jellyfish?

In 2013, a scientific announcement challenged the current understanding of evolution. Particularly, jellyfish could be our first ancestors, claimed by the investigation. The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) researched the genome sequence of comb jelly to understand the creature better. During that study, they noticed that the particular comb jelly, called the Mnemiopsis Leidyi shares DNA with all other animals.

Mnemiopsis Leidyi (Comb) Jellyfish. [source]

According to the published journal, the comb jelly might be the earliest branch of the animal tree and the sister lineage to other animals. The proposed theory challenged the current understanding of evolution that animals simply developed nervous systems and muscles over time. The discovery of the comb jelly with nervous system could be a sign that they were the first ancestors that started off the branch of animals.

Other scientists suggested that the human brain evolved from the development of complex neuron networks like those in jellyfish. These scientists traced the origins of the genes capable of this trait to an ancient form of sea life. Dr Timothy Jegla is the scientist leading the work at Penn State University. He said that a majority of these signalling systems first appeared in jellyfish and sea anemones. Moreover, the neural networks we use to generate nerve impulses are also present in the comb jellies.

Whilst these theories might all sound revolutionary, much research is still underway. We still need to understand how animals branched off to form the different kinds of animals we have today. Whether or not you agree with evolutionary theory, the suggestion that our ancestors could be jellyfish sounds a little insane. So, do try to avoid proclaiming you are part of the jellyfish lineage the next time you meet your friends.

The Invasive “Plastic”

Floating plastic bags that look like jellyfish swimming. [source]

Floating plastic bags in the ocean are a plague to sea life. It also evolved to become an increasingly alarming pandemic, and not without reason. Over 100,000 marine animals are dying by plastic bags annually and leatherback turtles perished with plastic in their stomachs. Jellyfish share the appearance of these floating plastics, and are also turning out to be a nuisance. Jellyfish populations are raising concern with conservationists, environmentalists, fisheries and are even threatening biodiversity.

Ships load and carry water in their ballasts for balance and stability when travelling across the ocean. The water comes from the ocean, carrying along many forms of aquatic life, such as fish, plankton and jellyfish. Most species die in this environment but the survivors become invasive and disrupt local ecology when released into foreign waters. These species, labelled alien and invasive, can be as damaging as oil spills with much more persistent effects. Amongst these alien species are the jellyfish.

Throughout history, one best documented example was the invasion of comb jellyfish from North America in the Black Sea in 1982. The comb jellyfish, carried by ships from the American Atlantic, arrived in the Black Sea in 1982. In this new environment, the jellies quickly propagated due to no competition for their food. By the mid-1990’s, these jellyfish accounted for over 90% of the biomass in the Black Sea. This led to the collapse of commercial fisheries within a few years. With much of the ecology disrupted, dolphins and other fish species dropped in numbers and even disappeared in those waters. The jellyfish even reduced the amount of oxygen in the Black Sea. As of recent years, they entered the Caspian Sea, where they are wrecking similar havoc.

Nomura jellyfish threatening to dominate ocean. [source]

Worrying Statistics

Since 2002, the numbers of Nomura jellyfish increased in Japanese waters. They even caused the capsizing of a 10-tonne fishing boat in Tokyo when crew hauled them in with a net.  The increase in temperature and the decrease in the number of predator species resulted in the explosion in jellyfish numbers. Jellyfish don’t just threaten aquatic life but also heavily impacted fishing businesses, tourism and are only proliferating faster. The proliferation of jellyfish seems to be largely related to human impacts. In particular, overfishing, pollution, and human structures which helped jellyfish reproduce faster than ever.

The boom in jellyfish population is pervasive and affects us in many ways. Jellyfish stings are a health concern affecting almost 150 million people worldwide. Their huge numbers can have devastating ecological and economic problems. For instance, they can block pipes in power stations, overrun fish farms and render tourist spots to become danger zones. While claims of jellyfish taking over the oceans are hugely inflated, it’s still a worrying problem that should concern us. The jellyfish, being around much longer than we have, have very little to stop them from outliving the human race.

Jellyfish: Our Ancestors?

We seem to have a fascinating connection to jellyfish and they affect our lives, whether we like it or not. The thought of us originating from jellyfish and having them outlive us might seem implausible and grim. These unjustified concerns should prompt us to be more thoughtful of how our actions play out in the bigger picture. However, jellyfish proved to be helpful towards humankind’s growth. More importantly, they just might be the solution to us living a little longer.

Breakthrough Scientific Discovery

Aequorea Victoria jellyfish and bioluminescence. [source]

In 1960, Osamu Shimomura isolated a gene that carries instructions to make a glowing protein from the Aequorea Victoria. This gene, called the Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP), is responsible for bioluminescence in the jellyfish. This discovery shifted the scientific paradigm and enabled researchers to introduce this gene into other animals through breeding or viruses. This was important because it allowed selected proteins to be tracked and this had revolutionised the biomedical field.

The discovery of GFP opened the door to many new exciting possibilities. The work performed by Chalfie and Tsien in the early 1990s allowed the study of gene expression. GFP essentially acts as a biochemical beacon, allowing the observation of how specific sets of cells behaved during embryonic behaviour. It even allows the study of seeing how cells die. Ultimately, the work performed with GFP gave the three scientists a Nobel Prize in 2008. GFP is now commonly used to track the spread of cancer cells, HIV infections and many other areas in science. Researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine use GFP to engineer new fluorescent probes to see inside organs and organisms. Scientists are even working on manipulating the nematocysts of jellyfish to deliver medicine.

Genetic engineering took off in the last few decades and the words DNA found its way into our colloquialisms. Gene research is gaining momentum and scientists are only discovering new, improved ways to better life around us. Nevertheless, controversies spawned questioning human ethics and the nature of our mortality. Although it might take a while before we get comfortable with the thought of designer babies, it’s still quite an exciting thought to see how far genetic engineering will take us.

Turritopsis Dohrnii jellyfish (immortal jellyfish). [source]

Learning From Jellyfish

The long lifespans of jellyfish leave many to wonder how they survive so long. More importantly, we could study them to enable us to survive for a longer time as well. The Turritopsis Dohrnii jellyfish, known as the immortal jellyfish, as it does not die from old age. This small, tiny, transparent jellyfish is almost alien-like and can perform transdifferentiation. Transdifferentiation happens when the jellyfish feels threatened by injury and it transforms back into its juvenile polyp. The jellyfish can retract its tentacles, shrink their bodies and transform back into a polyp where it spawns brand new, genetically identical clones of the parent. This loophole gave the Turritopsis Dohrnii a biological immortality and it rightfully earned the name of the immortal jellyfish.

Imagine how a breakthrough in genetic engineering with the combination of human DNA with the gene to transdifferentiate could affect human mortality as we know it. Humans could potentially spawn off genetically identical versions of themselves or maybe even discover a technology to allow self-regenerating abilities. Moreso, the discovery of GFP probes further exploration to allow humans to work with bioluminescence. Perhaps one day in the future we will develop technology to allow us to make our own light, or even make our own food through photosynthesis.

Genetic engineering. [source]

Navigating Through Unexplored Territory

Most of these ideas are controversial and spark many arguments; it challenges the human ideal and can truthfully be a little unsettling to think about. These new discoveries are unexplored territory and many scientists are still trying to understand how this could change humanity. We are yet still unsure of any potential ramifications, and even if the technology were to become available soon, it might take us much longer to ever come to terms with accepting the thought of becoming biologically immortal or becoming glow-in-the-dark beings. Uncertainty lies ahead and the human race should tread carefully, we are still too naive to acknowledge our exploitative, humanocentristic views and we are afraid of change. Despite that fear, it should not become a damper in helping us pursue a better understanding of things around us.

The Jellyfish Allegory

“ The universe went on as before, the planet went on as before. Man’s appearance caused no more stir than the appearance of jellyfish.”
 – Daniel Quinn, Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit

In the 1992 philosophical novel Ishmael, Daniel Quinn talks of the hidden cultural biases in human civilisation through conversations between two characters. This avant-garde literacy piece explores the themes of ethics, human supremacy and the catastrophic consequences for humankind and the environment that come about from cultural myths. The jellyfish allegory comes from a conversation between the narrator and a jellyfish. The narrator describes the mythology of the history of the world as starting from the big bang, ending with the creation of man.

The narrator first asks the jellyfish whether life began on land or sea, to which the jellyfish replies that it knows not of the land, and describes land as the lip of the vast bowl that holds the sea.

“ The creature turned a deeper shade of lavender and said, ‘I can’t imagine what you’re gibbering about. The dirt and rocks over there are simply the lip of the vast bowl that holds the sea.’ ”
 – Daniel Quinn, Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit

When the narrator asks the jellyfish of its creation mythology, the jellyfish replies that it most definitely has an account of creation, but its account was not a myth as the jellyfish are strictly rational and logical, accepting nothing that is not based on observation and knowledge coming from scientific exploration. The jellyfish goes on to recite it’s account, starting with the big bang, and ending with the creation of jellyfish.

“ ‘But finally,’ the creature said, turning quite pink with pride as he came to the climax of his story, ‘but finally jellyfish appeared!’ ”
 – Daniel Quinn, Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit

This allegory is a depictment of our hubris to the knowledge we currently possess, where it is told through a conversation between the narrator and the jellyfish. In the eyes of the jellyfish in the allegory, the jellyfish says that the entire universe was created, so jellyfish could come to be. It is through that account that the narrator understands that his account was conceited as well.

Humans possess egocentric views where we live with the false confidence that we have fundamentally figured out how everything works and that it is only through scientific methods, we can possess real knowledge. Daniel Quinn uses his literacy abilities to describe human ignorance and the beliefs of humans where we view ourselves as objectively superior to other animals. This thought experiment remains pertinent today where we still do view ourselves as the superior, smarter, intelligent beings. Our inability to see outside our own world view acts as a barrier in the pursuit of a better understanding of the things around us.

Anthropocentric pyramid. [source]

A Wake-up-call for Human Race

Although the jellyfish allegory was simply used as a thought experiment in the novel, it still holds its poetic irony in the sense that we, as the human race cannot see before, or beyond our timeline. We are unable to comprehend a world without us, despite even jellyfish being here long before us. If we continue down this path of self-destruction, jellyfish might just continue to outlive us and it is our inaction and indifference to the matters around us, that we might not prevail through the next destructive event. Research into jellyfish might help advance scientific understanding, building new technology might help us live to an older age, and deep-sea exploration might help us find cool new creatures, but if we don’t start realising that we don’t own this Earth, we might not be around much longer to regret our passivity.

Written by Jonas Ho

Curiosity doesn't always kill the cat.

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