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A chemist accustomed to the clean and orderly conditions of a lab, Katja Klun has spent the past year immersed in the messy business of trying to figure out the best way to collect, extract, and store jellyfish mucus. To say she’s been working with bucketfuls of mucus is no exaggeration, and she’s had to remove more jellyfish gonads than she would ever care to count.
“There is lots of nasty work and the smell is not pleasant. But everything for science,” says Klun, who works for Slovenia’s National Institute of Biology.
Klun’s work is part of GoJelly, the European Union’s four-year, US $6.8-million project to investigate and exploit the untapped properties of jellyfish. The project’s 16 teams in nine countries are exploring the use of jellyfish as human food, as feed for aquaculture, as fertilizer, and as an ingredient in cosmetics. But GoJelly’s most innovative effort is that being undertaken by Klun and her colleagues, who are searching for a way to use jellyfish mucus as a filter for microplastics at wastewater treatment plants. The GoJelly project recently concluded its first year.
Jellyfish are implacable survivors—estimates based on fossils put their age at about 500 million years, one of the oldest organisms on Earth. They reproduce quickly and in vast numbers, and they are quick to fill ecological niches opened by overfishing, acidification, and global warming. They thrive where other sea creatures cannot, but in many places, jellyfish are considered pests. Blooming in great numbers they shut down beaches, clog intake pipes at nuclear power plants, and overwhelm fisheries.
GoJelly’s call for proposals asked for “nature-based solutions to marine pollution, including microplastics, and also marine litter, which includes jellyfish blooms,” says Jamileh Javidpour, a marine ecologist at the University of Southern Denmark and one of GoJelly’s organizers. The jellyfish mucus filters are “a way to solve one problem with another,” she says.
The mission to use jellyfish to clean up plastic began in 2015, when French researchers discovered that jellyfish mucus could capture nanoparticles of gold in contaminated water. Javidpour and several colleagues thought that property could be applied to microplastics.
Currently, wastewater plants do a good job treating water to remove organic material and microbes, but struggle with plastic particles.
“There are a few wastewater treatment plants that are currently testing methods to capture and remove nano- or microplastics from treated wastewater, but so far none has proven to be both reliable and cost-effective,” says Dror Angel, a marine ecologist at the University of Haifa in Israel, and the leader of the jellyfish filter project.
In tests, the researchers added jellyfish mucus to a suspension of microplastics, gave it a mix, and observed if the plastic beads adhered to the sticky mucus and sank to the bottom of the tube. So far, those initial tests of the jellyfish filter were not very successful. But Angel says the problem may be the quality of the mucus. The team is working with nomad jellyfish caught off the coast of Israel, rather than the moon jellyfish used in the original French research. Now the team is regrouping, and will be checking if their nomad jellyfish mucus can capture gold nanoparticles, too.
Meanwhile, Klun is hard at work trying to figure out how long jellyfish can be stored, and by what means (freezing or drying) to conserve the mucus for future use. Others on the team are measuring the quantities and types of microplastics in treated wastewater, and testing ways to integrate the mucus into the filter itself.
Some scientists outside the project question whether it makes sense to be trying to use jellyfish mucus at all.
“Scaling something up to industrial scale would seem quite difficult,” says Lucas Brotz, a jellyfish researcher at the University of British Columbia. “How many jellyfish would be required to sustain such filters and what is to be done when no jellyfish are available?”
Javidpour says the first question is currently being studied, and the second will be dealt with by jellyfish culture to maintain a steady supply of mucus.
But the biggest hurdle for the project is the absence of clear policy for reducing microplastics in wastewater.
“Without standards for microplastics in wastewater effluent, it’s impossible to incentivize investment,” says Shirra Freeman, an environmental economist with Canada’s National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health, who is working with the GoJelly team. “And without investment there can be no innovation. This is key. It’s in [its] transmission down to the operational level that policy succeeds or fails.”