Gooey solution to a sticky problem

Researchers in Japan have extracted a new, gooey, and potentially useful protein from the bodies of jellyfish. The sugar-laden molecule, a member of the mucin family, is similar to proteins found in human mucus and other natural lubricants and protective coatings.

Booming jellyfish populations have caused serious problems in waters around Japan and elsewhere, as the animals’ bodies have tangled with ships’ propellers and clogged coolant lines in coastal power plants. Hoping to offset the expense of removal, Kiminori Ushida and his colleagues at the Riken Institute of Physical and Chemical Research in Wako and Shinwa Chemical Industries in Kyoto looked for a commercially valuable product from the sea creatures.

The researchers identified the new protein in a goo that they extracted from the carcasses of five jellyfish species, they report in the July Journal of Natural Products. They named the protein qniumucin, from a Japanese word meaning local rebirth.

Mucin molecules, laden with complex carbohydrates, are difficult to synthesize in the laboratory. Mucins derived from pigs and cows are widely used in cosmetics, food additives, and drugs. Some have antibiotic properties. Considering the massive number of jellyfish bodies available, the animals could be an important new source for such proteins, Ushida says. He and his colleagues extracted up to 2 grams of qniumucin from every 10 kilograms of wet jellyfish and hope that small-scale production will begin within the next year.

With a simpler carbohydrate structure than that of other animal mucins, qniumucin could serve as a foundation for more-complex synthetic mucins tailored to specific applications, Ushida says.

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