A researcher at Israel’s Hebrew University has found that the Nematostella adapt their venom several times throughout their lifespan. As venom is commonly used in medications and pharmacological compounds, the breakthrough is significant because the new types of venom discovered in the study could lead to new drugs.

The Nematostella

The Nematostella Photo Credit: Yaara Columbus-Shenkar, Hebrew University

A Hebrew University researcher recently discovered that sea anemones change their venom several times over the course of a lifetime in order to better suit new predators and their changing aquatic environments.

Dr. Yehu Moran of Hebrew University’s Alexander Silberman Institute of Life Science led a team of researchers as they studied the Nematostella, a relative of the jellyfish, throughout their entire lifespan. The Nematostella are born as tiny larvae and often fall prey to larger fish. However, once they have matured, they become predators that use their venomous tentacles to catch their prey.

Moran’s research, which was published Monday in eLife Science Magazine, indicated that while in their initial stage, the Nematostella produce a type of venom that causes predators to spit them out immediately if swallowed. However, when they mature into predators, they produce a different venom that enables them to catch small fish. The study also showed that when the Nematostella’s diet changes and they migrate from one aquatic environment to another, their venom adapts accordingly.

“Until now, venom research focused mainly on toxins produced by adult animals. However, by studying sea anemones from birth to death, we discovered that animals have a much wider toxin arsenal than previously thought. Their venom evolves to best meet threats from predators and to cope with changing aquatic environments,” explained Moran in a press release.  

As venom is frequently used in medicine and pharmacological compounds, Moran’s findings about the different compounds in larvae venom and the Nematostella’s ability to change their venom over their lifespan could help lead to new drugs and medications.