In the last five years, 24 sea otters have stranded and died in the Monterey Bay area. Veterinarians noticed a strange yellow coloration to the animals, so they performed necropsies and determined that the cause of death was something pretty unexpected- microcystin.
Microcystin is a cyanotoxin produced by algae, and because it’s generally found in freshwater, deaths in ocean mammals are particularly troubling. Investigation led researchers to a nearby freshwater lake, where they used ‘artificial clams’- small bags of polystyrene beads- to give them some answers. The bags can be left in the water for periods of time, and much like real clams, they passively absorb toxins. Later, they can be analyzed to determine toxin levels over a period of time.
Researchers confirmed that the lake was the source of the problem. They found that a combination of natural phosphorous in the underlying rock combined with chemical runoff from local agriculture created the perfect environment for the algae that produces microcystins. When the lake water fed into the ocean, invertebrates such as clams and mussels in the ocean collected the toxin and concentrated it. When sea otters fed on the toxic clams, they were slowly poisoned.
They’ve found the source, but now it’s a question of how to address it. Researchers are working on potential treatments for microcystin poisoning (with the help of rats!), and hopefully, this will lead to treatments that can help marine animals as well as humans.
Jellyfish. What do you think of when you hear that word? You probably don’t feel warm and fuzzy! Personally, when I think of jellyfish, I think of that Friends episode where Monica was stung and someone had to pee on her. It’s pretty funny… but that memorable show makes me always associate jellyfish with pee.
Apparently, that association really makes a lot of sense! An Israeli company is working to develop an absorbent material made out of jellyfish, and this hydromash material is supposedly much more absorbent than paper towels. They’re now considering creating paper towels, napkins, and diapers out of jellyfish! If you think about it, it makes sense- jellyfish are 90% water and live their entire lives in the water, so their tissues can obviously absorb a lot without breaking down.
A chemical extracted from jellyfish (mucin) is already used in some drug delivery systems, and now these animals could help our landfills. Diapers can take 250-500 years to decompose, but new products made out of this jellyfish ‘hydromash’ could decompose in 30 days.
What do you think? Would you use jellyfish products?
Nature has always provided inspiration for human medicine. Aspirin, penicillin, quinine, taxol- the list goes on. But now, with the increase of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, we need inspiration more than ever! So researchers are getting creative.
With advances in technology, we’re able to explore more of our planet than ever before. And that includes the deepest parts of the ocean! The Peru-Chile trench is 8 km deep (OK, so maybe only a league and a half under the sea- still pretty deep!) and it’s home to a multitude of organisms and microbes that flourish in extreme conditions. This could potentially be a huge breakthrough in the development of new medicines and new antibiotics.
The goal is to isolate bacteria, let it grow, and then test it on hundreds of disease samples to see what happens. If there’s a positive reaction, zebrafish might be able to help researchers in the next steps of testing. Let’s hope that research in the Peru-Chile trench yields some lifesaving results! It’s estimated that within a couple of decades, antibiotic resistance could be such a huge problem that simple infections could kill you. While that’s definitely an unsettling thought, it’s reassuring to know that researchers are going to such lengths to make sure that no stone is unturned in the search for new options!