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Stopping the gloop!

Scientists on an underwater expedition have just discovered a new species of jellyfish that live in the deepest parts of the Arctic Ocean. The Arctic Ocean is cut off from the rest of the Earth’s seas by massive walls of rock called ocean ridges. These ridges have kept these species isolated from other deep sea creatures for a very long time.

The expedition filmed over 50 types of creatures. Some were jellyfish and some were far more exotic such as Siphonophores and Narcomedusae.

They found the species by sending out remotely-operated vehicles. Luckily, the vehicles didn’t have any people in them as the pressure at a depth of over 3Km is phenomenal, and would kill most life forms.

What are Siphonophores?

These are colonies of small animals living together in a structure that looks like a single, large creature.

Siphonophores

What are Narcomedusae?

These are small, blue jellyfish. They hold their tentacles out in front instead of letting them trail behind like most jellyfish do. This makes them better hunters. In fact, they are so unusual that they been given their own genus.

The discovery of these new species makes us realise that the bottom of the oceans are mostly unexplored. It’s likely that they contain hundreds of new species that have never been discovered.

No more runny ice cream

Remember buying an ice cream and within moments feeling the sticky trickle of melting gloop trickling down your fingers?

Runny ice cream

How do we stop the gloop?

Scientists have discovered a new ingredient to stop the gloop! This could be the biggest development in ice cream technology for half a century.

What is this magical ingredient?

The newly discovered ingredient comes from a protein that controls the growth of ice crystals.

Why is it important to control the growth of ice crystals?

This is a really important thing for nature to be able to do. In Arctic and Antarctic seas the water often drops below 0°C. At these temperatures many salty liquids would freeze solid. This would be very unfortunate if you were a fish as frozen blood doesn’t work very well!

Frozen fish

What, fish with anti freeze?

It had been assumed for many years that these creatures must have some kind of ‘antifreeze’ circulating in their bodies, but no one knew quite what it was or how it worked.

We now know that the antifreeze scientists thought fish had in their blood is a kind of protein. It’s this protein that stops ice crystals forming.

Where else can this kind of anti freeze be found?

Once scientists found this protein that acts like antifreeze, they soon found it in lots of other places: insects, fungi, plants and bacteria. Also, many vegetables that grow during the winter and even grass have the protein. In fact, it can be found in anything that has to survive at very low temperatures.

Fungi, insects, bacteria, plants

The really clever thing about these proteins is that they don’t just stop ice crystals forming, but they control the direction in which they grow. So, if you want an ice crystal that is long and thin like a tube, there is a protein that will make it grow in that shape.

What difference does this protein make to ice cream?

If you make your ice cream with this kind of ice crystal it acts as a kind of skeleton that supports the ice cream and stops it dripping down your fingers.

Where else can these proteins be used?

As good as ice cream is, there are other uses for this anti freeze like protein. Some of the proteins, known as ‘hyperactives’ are so good at preventing ice crystal growth that they may well find some very unusual applications.

Organs within the human body

Human organs that can be used for transplants such as kidneys and the liver for example are really difficult to keep in good condition for more than just a few hours.

Transplant organs are packed in ice for transportation. The problem is that the organs cannot be allowed to freeze. If the temperature of the organ gets too low, tiny sharp ice crystals grow and puncture the cell membranes. This is no problem if it is a piece of frozen liver on its way to the frying pan, but if it’s a human liver going for transplant it is a disaster. The organ is wrecked and can never work again. In fact, organs for transplant are stored at 2°C above freezing to make sure this doesn’t happen, so they can only be kept outside the body for a few hours.

If you are a transplant surgeon looking for organs this can be a big problem because there is such a shortage of donor organs. Many organs are wasted because they might have to be taken to a hospital which is miles away. The organs wouldn’t survive being transported over a long distance!

How can organs be transported over much longer distances?

If the organs could be packed so that hyperactive proteins prevent ice crystal from forming they could survive much longer outside the body. Organs could be flown all over the world to potential recipients. A global database could be set up to match patients to organs. This would save many lives and be a huge step forward for transplant medicine.

Skin problems

One team of doctors is working on the idea of producing ice that will form in a particular direction to freeze and destroy skin tumours without damaging the surrounding tissues. Not a bad idea!

Cracking the supply problem

This all sounds great and there could be so many uses for these proteins that haven’t even been thought of yet. There is just one very big problem: a single plant supplies so little of the protein that we would need to grow hundreds of square kilometres of plants to be able to extract just a few grams.

Bakers yeast and jellyfish

Baker's yeast and jellyfish

A really clever solution has been found. Genetically modified baker’s yeast has been made to include some of the DNA present in deep-sea jellyfish that tells it how to make hyperactive proteins. This kind of genetic engineering is now common and is used to mass produce things like food flavourings and vitamins. With a bit of luck the mass production of hyperactives will be in full swing very soon!

The big questions:

How much do we know about life in the deep oceans?

Are thre more species to be discovered in the deep oceans?

How do plants and animals that live in temperatures below zero keep themselves from freezing solid?

How could we transport organs to be transplanted more effectively?