How jellyfish fight microplastics and Improve soil quality

By Eva Istsenko

Humanity is currently producing more amounts of plastic and waste than ever before. There are between 12 and 21 million tons of microplastics floating at the top 200 meters of the Atlantic Ocean (Fact Check: what are microplastics and are they dangerous?, 2020). A small piece of plastic can be considered ‘micro’ when it is less than 5 mm long or about sesame seed size. These are usually formed from degradation of plastic rubbish and can now be found almost everywhere – lakes, rivers, water supplies and even bottled water. Another type of microplastics are microbeads, often used in toiletries like toothpaste or facial scrubs. Luckily, the use of these microbeads is banned in most countries. 

Since microplastics are a relatively new problem, it is not yet clear what its health implications are to humans, but this doesn’t mean they are harmless. Research by Healthline showed that chemicals used to increase plastic plasticity can boost breast cancer cells growth. It is important to note that the study was only a small-scale experiment with no clear application to humans. It is clear, however, that microplastics are found inside millions of fish and animals, diminishing their urge to eat and, ultimately, leads to weaker species with lower reproductive rates whilst also entering our food chain. 

Due to the micro size of these plastics, specialized filters are needed, which are currently not efficient enough or too costly. A possible solution? A project collaboration of European and Israel scientists called GoJelly. This project produces different products ranging from fertilizers to food products, but its main goal is to clean up plastic waste. Jellyfish mucus is able to absorb the smallest particles and luckily, due to environmental factors like global warming and overfishing, the jellyfish population is exponentially growing every day.  Jellyfish overpopulation can be dangerous to marine ecosystem balance and disturb human way of life. For instance, there were multiple reports of jellyfish being stuck in fishing nets, causing the shutting of beaches and even disturbing powerplant wok. Therefore, jellyfish exploitation is actually encouraged to reduce their population.  

The GoJelly project has been running for four years and has already received 6 million euros in funding. Making a mucus filter, however, is a tricky process. The researchers are testing species to find the most optimal mucus whilst also trying to stabilize it. Normally mucus degrades within days when left outside, even when kept in a fridge, but can last up to months in a freezer. Therefore, a problem to consider is its conservation; jellyfish filters won’t be able to be mass produced. Furthermore, animal rights movements or other ethical organizations might refuse the use of such filters as it could be considered animal cruelty. Alternatively, overuse can also lead to loss of the species or put them in an endangered state. (weise, 2019). 

As mentioned earlier, GoJelly varies in its products. Because they only need slime/mucus for investigation of biofilters, the dried jellyfish mass is sent off for other purposes (eg. fertilizers). With the current rates of population growth, it is critical to find new ways to ensure food security. Jellyfish fertilizers are abundant with macro- and micro- elements (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, etc.), increasing soil health, quality and microbial activity as well as significantly increasing growth and survival of seedlings. Even partial substitution of mineral and chemical fertilizers with marine products could improve environmental impact and contribute to advance in the blue economy (economy targeting exploitation and preservation of marine systems). It is also suggested that positive feedback on soil may improve hydrological cycle by increasing water holding capacity and nutrient-use efficiency (Imadodin, 2020). 

Furthermore, jellyfish is proclaimed to be the next most sustainable food. The marine creature dish has been a common meal in most Asian countries for centuries but is only now being introduced to western dinner tables as a new delicacy. They have a similar texture and taste to oysters but bring many more benefits. The main compound of jellyfish is collagen, shown to be a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, and often used in skin care products. Moreover, the dish contains microalgae that are rich in omega 3 and 6. However, jellyfish offer very little protein since they are mostly composed of water. All parts of the jellyfish are edible, but the ‘oral arms’ have the greatest nutrient content. It is important to note that in a lot of dishes jellyfish is usually dried using toxic substances like alum. Therefore, scientists from Puglia, Italy, are working to scale up the process using the same mechanism employed to dry vegetables. It is crucial to diversify our diets and find new materials suitable for food that have low environmental and economic impacts, since the Earth’s population is inflating everyday (Southey,2019).  

Overall, it can be agreed that jellyfish are amazing creatures with hidden benefits to our health, economy and environment. The timing is perfect to boost research into possible applications, due to the overpopulation of the marine creatures. There is a lot more to explore and evaluate regarding the impact of jellyfish use and its sustainability. So far, scientists are confident jellyfish could be a universal solution for microplastic pollution and soil infertility, and perhaps in the future, we would discover novel jellyfish based therapeutics or diagnosis machinery. 

References:

The Week UK. 2020. Fact Check: What Are Microplastics And Are They Dangerous?. [online] Available at: <https://www.theweek.co.uk/fact-check/103520/fact-check-what-are-microplastics-and-are-they-dangerous&gt; [Accessed 31 October 2020].

National Ocean Service. 2020. What Are Microplastics?. [online] Available at: <https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/microplastics.html.&gt; [Accessed 31 October 2020].

weise, z., 2019. Fighting Plastic Pollution With Jellyfish Slime. [online] POLITICO. Available at: <https://www.politico.eu/article/fighting-microplastic-pollution-with-jellyfish-slime/&gt; [Accessed 31 October 2020].

Imadodin, i., 2020. A Perspective On The Potential Of Using Marine Organic Fertilizers For The Sustainable Management Of Coastal Ecosystem Services. [online] Springer Link. Available at: <https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s42398-020-00097-y&gt; [Accessed 31 October 2020].

Southey, F., 2019. Jellyfish: A New Sustainable, Nutritious, And ‘Oyster-Like’ Food For The Western World?. [online] foodnavigator.com. Available at: <https://www.foodnavigator.com/Article/2019/07/30/Jellyfish-A-new-sustainable-nutritious-and-oyster-like-food-for-the-Western-world&gt; [Accessed 31 October 2020].

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