A barrel jellyfish floating in the Mediterranean Sea A barrel jellyfish floating in the Mediterranean Sea A barrel jellyfish floating in the Mediterranean Sea. (Photo: Vilainecrevette / Shutterstock)

What do jellyfish and Robin Hood have in common?

New research explains how a jellyfish sting is like a thousand little arrows.

Robin Hood used his skill with an arrow for good. Jellyfish may be able to do the same.

Those harmless-looking gelatinous blobs floating by at the beach have the capability of deploying thousands of poisonous arrows to protect themselves, catch prey and indiscriminately sting you. (OK, that last one isn't totally true.)

Now researchers at Israel's Technion Institute of Technology and the University of Haifa have conducted a study that, for the first time, thoroughly unpacks how these arrows function. They believe what they've learned can eventually improve the delivery methods of drugs to humans.

The conventional explanation as to how the arrows work is that each is located inside a stinging cell packaged inside a spherical capsule. Each is triggered by a force mechanism called osmotic potential – basically an object irritating the capsule and making it pop.

"In response to chemical changes in the environment or physical contact, pressure increases inside the capsule and the needle is ejected at a tremendous acceleration of more than 31 miles per second,” said Professor Uri Shavit of Technion's Faculty of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

What he and his colleagues discovered, however, is that the driving force is not limited to the capsule alone. In fact, it is a powerful osmotic mechanism that develops at the arrow's moving front. This mechanism releases the needle and "pulls it like a locomotive pulling railroad cars."

The researchers say this new understanding is "vital for future development" of more efficient and less painful drug delivery methods – a virtuous act not even Robin Hood could lay claim to.

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