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Dr. Angel Yanagihara, University of Hawaii – Venom of the Box Jelly

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In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Angel Yanagihara of the University of Hawaii reveals what makes the venom of the box jelly so deadly.

Angel Yanagihara is Director of the Pacific Cnidaria Research Lab and an assistant researcher with the Pacific Biosciences Research Center at the University of Hawaii. Her lab’s current objective is the systematic biochemical and pathophysiological characterization of novel toxins and bioactive compounds from venomous marine invertebrates.

About Dr. Yanagihara

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Dr. Angel Yanagihara – Venom of the Box Jelly

Chironex fleckeri, the Australian box jelly (right), is the most deadly venomous animal on the planet, causing death in minutes. How could a simple jellyfish be more deadly than a rattlesnake or cobra?

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I began studying box jelly venoms 14 yrs ago after plowing into a swarm of nearly translucent related but non-lethal Hawaiian box jellies during an early morning swim. I suffered horribly painful stings over much of my exposed skin including my neck. The fiery pain and days long agony got my full attention. As a biochemist, I was completely intrigued but as a sting victim it was personal. I needed to know more. I developed new methods to recover the venom, which doesn’t come from a gland as in a spider or snake but is packaged in millions of individual stinging cells along the tentacles each with just a few picoliters of venom. I used old-fashioned basic biochemistry to identify the principal components. Remarkably fastest acting agent is a porin a member of an even older family of toxic proteins and structurally related to the proteins that drive toxicity of many pathogenic bacteria.  This porin alone could cause death in seconds in a mouse far faster than any snake toxin ever discovered. In reviewing the bacteriological literature, I found that almost a hundred years ago various ions had been shown to inhibit bacterial porin driven lysis.

Taking this precedent, I constructed complex matrix experiments to assess the individual and combinatorial efficacy of such ions on inhibiting the porins of the box jellies. This led to the surprising finding that zinc gluconate could prevent box jelly porin mediated death in a mouse. Work is now rapidly proceeding to examine the application of this discovery for life threatening human stings as well as a topical formula for common jelly stings.

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