Director of the Whitney Laboratory; Professor of Physiology and Functional Genomics, Neuroscience and Biology
Anyone who has been stung by a Portuguese Man-of-War or other jellyfish knows how much pain these beautiful animals can inflict. What we don't appreciate is how much damage the animal is doing to itself when it accidently stings a swimmer. The stinging cells (nematocysts) of jellyfish have been described as the most complex cells in any animal on earth and, as such, are very demanding for the animal to make. Most importantly, a Man-of-War or jellyfish can use a sting cell only once. After it has fired off, it has to be discarded and replaced. So every time a jellyfish stings something that doesn't end up in its stomach, and uses up thousands of stinging cells doing so, it is wasting an enormous amount of energy. It is no surprise then that jellyfish have evolved very elaborate ways to be sure that they fire off their sting cells only when there is a strong likelihood that they will capture food. We have been studying the mechanisms used by jellyfish to control the firing of their sting cells, particularly the ways by which jellyfish detect the odors or other chemical signals given off by potential prey.
An offshoot of this work has been to explore the possibility that the sting cells of jellyfish, which are, in essence, microscopic hypodermic needles, could be used as a way to deliver pharmaceuticals and medical treatments automatically.
Peter Anderson graduated with a B.Sc. in zoology from St. Andrews Univeristy in Scotland with First Class Honours. He earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara and did his postdoctoral research with George Mackie at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada.