How the Jellyfish Stings

Many jellyfish are capable of venomously stinging both their prey and their predators. The stings originate from specialized cells in their tentacles called nematocysts (middle image) that, when activated, rapidly extend a thin tubule that acts like a hypodermic needle to deliver venom into the jellyfish’s victim (bottom image). The tubules can elongate in about 50 ms – about one-sixth of the time needed to blink your eye. This rapid extension is driven by osmotic pressure – pressure generated when water flows across a semi-permeable membrane in response to chemical changes. 

Researchers originally thought all of the osmotic pressure resided in the nematocyst’s capsule end from which the tubule expands, but new work indicates that the tubule is instead pulled along by high osmotic pressure along its moving front. That means that disrupting osmosis at the front – by say, wearing a material with no osmotic potential – can slow down the tubule expansion and stop the jellyfish’s sting. (Image credits: jellyfish – A. Kongprepan; nematocyst – D. Brand; tubule expansion – S. Park et al.; research credit: S. Park et al.; submitted by L. Buss)

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