Scientist Discovers How to Turn Jellyfish Into Industrial Raw Material

Tel Aviv University professor Shahar Richter is developing a way to turn the world's overabundant jellyfish into a valuable resource.

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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A jellyfish on Gordon beach in Tel Aviv this past summer.Credit: Daniel Bar-On
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

The United Nations in May issued a desperate call to scientists worldwide to join a war on jellyfish, following a report on the serious damage the creatures cause. So far, all efforts to control jellyfish expansion have failed and they have become a global problem.

Professor Shahar Richter, of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering & University Center for Nano Science and Nanotechnology at Tel Aviv University, eagerly accepted the challenge. Richter is working on a way to turn jellyfish into a perishable resource that could be used in various industries. This could provide various industries with an incentive to fish the creatures en masse and thus reduce their number.

Richter’s development, now being registered as a patent, could turn jellyfish into an attractive resource for paramedical, hygiene and perishable-product industries. They could be used for medical treatments, advanced bandages and perishable plastic products.

Some 450,000 tons of jellyfish are fished every year for the East Asian food industry. But Asian jellyfish consumption is far from effective in reducing or controlling the rapidly reproducing creatures’ population growth.

Jellyfish have disrupted the marine ecosystem and are seen as something of terrorists in the food chain. For example, a recent report describes how a bloom of jellyfish, spanning 4 square miles, devoured 100,000 salmon in a fish farm in Northern Ireland, causing damages of $1.5 million.

“Jellyfish cause damages in three major areas,” said Richter. “They clog up and paralyze atomic or electric power stations and desalination plants. In fact, they spell disaster for any facility that uses sea water. This happens in many places, including Korea, Japan, Sweden and India.

Jellyfish have also had a dramatic impact on the world fishing industry. “This is evident especially in the Far East, where there are species of huge jellyfish, weighing up to 150-200 kilograms [330-440 pounds]. They snag and block fishing nets and cause huge economic damages,” Richter said.

“Israeli fishermen I spoke to told me that on days when jellyfish swarms are close to the shore they don’t go out to sea,” he said.

The third industry to come under jellyfish attack is tourism. If in Israel, the jellyfish cause painful burning at worst, the deadly species off Australia’s shores have required closing down beaches for extended periods.

“In nanoelectronics, we make use of biological molecules, among other things. We found that one of the molecules we were using is found in jellyfish,” Richter said. “When we started looking at what was going on in jellyfish, we thought, why not produce perishable plastic materials from jellyfish that can be useful for human beings?”

Richter and his colleagues needed a large quantity of jellyfish for their experiments and started looking for them along the beach. “In the first year, the lifeguard at Hatzuk beach in Tel Aviv directed me to the jellyfish colonies, and we managed to collect 100 kilograms of them, suffering quite a few stings in the process,” Richter said.

“Later, we did it in a more orderly way with research boats. Also, to compare the different jellyfish species properties, we brought in a giant jellyfish from Japan with the help of colleagues abroad."

Richter and his team (students Liron Reshef, Gad Kedem and Roman Nudelman and Dr. Tamila Giolahamdov), with the help of professor Michael Gozin of Tel Aviv University’s School of Chemistry, worked on various applications for the jellyfish molecules. The idea was seemingly simple. A jellyfish consists of an umbrella-shaped bell and trailing tentacles; 90 percent of it is water. “We get rid of the tentacles and grind the jellyfish to get rid of the water. The remaining substance consists of two known proteins in the biotechnological industries — collagen (which is also found in human skin) and mucin (which is mostly found in mucous tissues).”

The team developed methods to turn the jellyfish “essence” into composite materials, adding nanoparticles with useful properties, like electrical conductivity, anti-bacterial materials, medicines and glowing substances, says Richter.

“The result is a composite biological material. Our innovation is proving that the material is perishable, so that if we bury it in the ground it will decompose, not pollute or cause environmental damage,” he said.

The team is now examining the industrial and commercial applications for this material. “One possible solution to the jellyfish problem, which has been adopted by the United Nations as well, is finding other uses for it beyond the food industry. When the materials we developed become applicable, they can help to solve the problem, serve various industries and provide fishermen with a living at times when they cannot fish,” he says.