Israeli scientists have seized on the secrets of the tiny orange Clown fish to produce a lotion they say fends off the nemesis of swimmers everywhere — the sting of the jellyfish.
A cream developed by marine biologist Amit Lotan and his wife Tamar, a molecular scientist, mimics the defensive secretions of the Clown, a fish that lives without being stung in the wavering tentacles of the sea anemone, a type of jellyfish.
Utilizing expertise garnered from more than a decade spent analyzing the sea creatures, 40-year-old Lotan has developed active compounds similar to those produced by the Clown fish.
“This is really a breakthrough. Most creams give relief after someone is stung, but this is the first that actually prevents the sting in the first place,” Lotan said in his laboratory on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
After coating his hand in the lotion, he placed it in a tank of the white parasol-shaped jellyfish that are most prevalent in the Mediterranean Sea. The creatures remained indifferent to his prods and pulls.
A Complicated Sting
The compounds inhibit the painful and even fatal stinging mechanism that can inflict lacerating welts and burning blotches on its victims.
Jellyfish have in many respects remained remarkably simple organisms in more than 700 million years of evolution. They lack muscles, bones and the ability to hear and see but their complex stings, one of the fastest mechanisms in nature, have defied scientists.
Two years ago, Lotan founded the Nidaria company with an old school friend Chen Porat to produce and market the patented invention.
About half a million dollars, most of it from the Israeli government, has been spent developing the cream that hit the U.S. and Israeli markets earlier this year under the Skin Guard brand and their own “SafeSea” name.
“The response has been very encouraging. We have been contacted by people from fishermen in Alaska to swimmers in Florida,” Porat said.
Nidaria is now negotiating with sunscreen manufacturers around the world, including Coppertone and Hawaiian Tropic in the United States and Boots chemists in England to manufacture their products jointly in a one-stop beach cream.
“Our long-term aim is that people will one day automatically take sunscreen with an anti-jellyfish component when they go to the beach,” Porat said.
An estimated 130 million people head every year for waters infested with more than 300 species of jellyfish.
They range from the delicate but fatal Australian sea wasp that can kill in seconds to the Tiffany-lamp Pelagia jellyfish that can inflict an excruciating burn with one swipe of its trailing tentacles.
The most severe concentrations are in Florida, the Caribbean, the Far East and the Mediterranean where millions of the sea creatures can swarm in a normal summer.
Lotan and Porat have tested their product on about 10 of the most common species, but say they have yet to carry out clinical experiments on the boxfish and Portuguese man-of-war or blue bottle, which can be fatal.
Nonetheless, they believe their product will be effective against all jellyfish.
Inventors Are Optimistic
“The product works according to the stinging cell mechanism that is similar in all jellyfish, not according to the different varieties. It should work against all types,” Lotan said.
The creatures are covered in hundreds of thousands of stinging cells that explode when they brush against an animal, releasing barbed stingers that propel into the victim and inject paralyzing poison through long narrow tubes.
As tests on more species of jellyfish continue in Israel, in conjunction with the U.S. navy, Porat is predicting that the sea may be the only limit for the repellent.
“This is a worldwide problem affecting millions of people. While it is a bit premature to say, we believe that within the next five years, it will be a presence in all major beaches around the world.”