ALMOST EVERYBODY LOVES ANEMONEFISH. The cute little fella depicted in Disney’s Finding Nemo brings a smile and sense of childhood innocence to us.
Darting about constantly between anemone tentacles, anemonefish live symbiotically with an anemone, providing tiny particles of food for their host while their anemones provide protection in their stinging tentacles.
Anemonefish have over time become immune to the poison that the anemones produce. It is thought that they go through a period of acclimation during which they obtain protection from
the stinging tentacles through a protective membrane that covers the whole of their bodies.
Attaching to the coral reef and rocks on the bottom of the ocean by an adhesive foot, anemones can be found singularly on many reefs around the world, but occasionally can be seen in large aggregations, such as at Anemone Thila in the Maldives.
Anemones can be as small as 5mm and can grow as big as 2m. They can have anything from a few tentacles up to a couple of hundred, and these are often seen emerging from brightly coloured mantles. The mantles can be spread so wide that they can hardly be seen, or can be closed so that only a few tentacles protrude from them.
Anemones are found mostly in tropical waters, but some have adapted themselves to cooler waters around the world. They generally stay in the same spot for the duration of their long lives – 60-80 years. They will only detach if attacked.
They are asexual and can reproduce with an anemone of the opposite sex, or, more interestingly, by division – splitting into two genetically identical anemones.
THE TENTACLES OF the anemone are armed with thousands of nematocyst cells that explode on touch, launching a harpoon-like spear containing venom into their victims. This paralyses them, and the anemones then move them into their mouths to eat using their tentacles.
The venom contains a mix of neurotoxins, but this poisonous sting is not harmful to humans. On the contrary, one of the toxins has recently become very interesting to medical researchers as a potential cure for human illnesses, particularly multiple sclerosis (MS), auto-immune disease and obesity.
Marine life has long been used to treat human ailments. Many non-proven cures, especially in Asian medicine, threaten delicate endangered species, such as the seahorses harvested for Chinese medicine to “treat” a range of illnesses from kidney disease to impotence. These so-called cures give marine medicine a bad name.
However, more and more research is being done into genuine medicinal benefits offered by marine life.
Asthma, arthritis and inflammatory disorders are treated using an enzyme called Secosteroid, which corals use to protect themselves from disease.
Bryozoans similar to barnacles are being used for an anti-cancer compound, along with blue-green algae, which is used to treat lung cancer. Caribbean sea-whips and gorgonian fans also seem to have amazing anti-inflammatory properties.
As well as being medicinal, marine species are being used to help us understand how our bodies work.
Sharks have helped scientists to understand how our kidneys work; squid and lobsters, how nerves conduct electricity; sea urchins and starfish, how embryos develop from a single fertilised cell. Those are a few examples, but many species are being used successfully in medical research and testing.
Anemones are particularly interesting because they are not harvested, damaged or killed for research.
They can be kept in aquarium conditions and “stressed” for a very short time by introducing a small amount of iced distilled water, which causes them to fire the nematocysts in their tentacles.
These nematocysts are then collected and used in the research. This procedure imitates nature, and seems to cause no lasting effect on the anemones.
The nematocysts’ neurotoxin contains a protein very similar in molecular structure to the neurons of mammals. Tests on these proteins have shown that they can either allow or block the entrance of a specific set of potassium ions in and out of cells.
These ions or channels are shown to be dysfunctional in auto-immune diseases, such as MS. Blocking these ions effectively shuts down the cells that cause the damage.
Tests have also found another benefit of blocking these channels. The metabolism in mammals increases and obesity decreases, which is a major breakthrough in fighting health problems associated with the obese. If obesity decreases, so will these associated medical problems.
IF NEMATOCYSTS ARE USED as a treatment, because they regenerate the anemones can be used again and again almost indefinitely until their natural death – so there would be no need to harvest large amounts of anemones.
I have a new-found respect for anemones. I have always loved them and spend hours trying to photograph anemonefish darting about their tentacles, but now, while attempting to get more than a tail or fin in my shot, I will spend a little time honouring them and all the other marine life that could be the key to controlling or curing many human diseases.