You might be familiar with the term “microplastics” used to describe the tiny bits of plastic that break off from fibers in our clothing or shed from our daily use of plastic products (though their origin is hard to determine and likely caused by many different items.) These threaten our waterways used for drinking water, and are unable to be captured by modern filters due to their microscopic size. Additionally, all sizes of plastics are creating garbage patches in the ocean that threaten marine species. However, researchers have started studying different breeds of jellyfish that are thriving in our increasingly-polluted ocean waters. GoJelly is an international group of researchers studying how to use jellyfish mucus, and potentially parts of the jellyfish itself, as a filter for these small pieces of plastic. The concept was first introduced by a team of French scientists in 2015 when they showed that jellyfish naturally bio-accumulate nanoparticles, and that maybe this could be used to intentionally trap small plastic particles in contaminated water. Though the research started in 2018, it is hopeful that they will develop a filter that can be applied to wastewater treatment plants to avoid microplastics ever leaving the plant, and that the technology could be used upstream to ensure more plastic litter never reaches our oceans.
As we look for ways to adapt to our changing environment, the scientific research and engineering communities are working to develop new ways of combating these challenges. The future can seem bleak when you start to look through the environmental news, but there is hope in the ingenuity of human beings to create and innovate based on what they see in the natural world around them. In the coming years, we will see just how creative humans can be.