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Toxin Compartmentation and Delivery in the
Cnidaria: The Nematocyst’s Tubule as a Multiheaded
Poisonous b r o w
Llepartment of Cell and Animal Biology, Life Sciences Institute, Hebrew
IJniversity of Jerusalem, 91904 Jerusalem, Israel
With the aid of dialysis and ion exchange chromatography, a new polypeptide
toxin was purified from the tentacles of the Mediterranean jellyfish Rhopilema nomadica. The
amino acid sequence of the N-terminal segment of the new toxin revealed that it is a phospholipase A2 ( P U B )toxin closely resembling those previously isolated from reptile and hymenopterous
venoms. The occurrence of a PhA2 toxin in the jellyfish tentacles may explain both their local
(dermanecrotic) and systemic (cardiac-respiratory) effects upon human envenomation.
We used an antibody raised against the above toxin as a probe to explore, for the first time, the
site of toxin allocabion in cnidarian nematocysts and its morphological route of delivery. Our immunocytochemical approach revealed that the toxin is stored on the outer (“cytoplasmic”)surface
of the inverted tubule folded in the capsule of the resting nematocyst. During discharge the toxin
is translocated to the internal surface surrounding the lumen of the everting tubule, and its delivery via extended spirally arrayed barbs is apparently propelled by the high hydrostatic pressure
of the capsule. This is a unique example where subcellular translocation and transfer of a polypeptide is driven by mechanical forces. @ 1996 Wiley-Liss, Inc.
Cnidaria (hydras,jellyfish, sea anemones, and corals) comprise an early phylum of radially symmetri-
cal venomous aquatic animals shown to possess a
wide array of neurotoxic (Kem, ’SS), cytolytic, and
enzymatic (Walker, ’88)substances. Despite the fact
that these toxic substances were isolated substantially from homogenates of entire animals
or tentacles, their storage and delivery sites are
attributed t o nematocysts (cnidocysts), t h e
stinging subcellular organelles common t o all
members of the phylum (Mariscal, ’74). The nematocysts are localized in specialized cells (nematocytes or cnidocytes) and consist of a capsule
containing a highly folded, eversible tubule. However, no information has so far been obtained on
the localization and mode of delivery of nematocyst toxins (Holstein et al., ’94).
The present study, while achieving the abovementioned goal, also yields direct proof that
cnidarian toxins are localized in the nematocysts
(Lotan et al., ,951, and the first chemical characterization of a jellyfish toxin.
Jellyfish tentacles
Rhopilema nomadicc! jellyfish were collected
in the Bay of Haifa. Their tentacles were re@ 1996 WILEY-LISS, INC.
moved by cutting and stored over dried ice in a
deep freezer.
Toxicity assays
Toxicity of jellyfish tentacle extracts or isolated
fractions was assayed by subcutaneous injection
into Gambusia affinis fish of 200-300 mg body
weight. Lethality, preceded by paralysis, occurred
within 5 minutes of injection. Values of lethal
doses (LD,,) were determined according to Reed
and Muench (’38).
Separation methods
When needed the frozen tentacles were thawed
and centrifuged (l,OOOg,10 min). Supernatant was
placed in dialysis bags (cut-off of 10 KDa, Sigma,
St. Louis, MO) and dialyzed against 0.01 M ammonium acetate pH 8.2 buffer at 4”C, for removal of
salts. The bag contents was separated on an anion
exchange (DEAE-Sephadex, Pharmacia, Uppsala,
Sweden), column (100 ml), equilibrated and eluted
by the above buffer. The fraction obtained at the
Received January 15, 1996; revision accepted April 9, 1996.
Address reprint requests to E. Zlotkin, Department of Cell and
Animal Biology, Institute of Life Sciences, Hebrew University of
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, 91904, Israel.
Tentacles (-70%)
Thawing ( 2 5 t )
Elution volume (nil)
Anion exchanger
(void volume)
Cation exchanger
Purified toxin
Fig. 1. Flow diagram of the purification procedure of a
toxin from jellyfish tentacles.
Fig. 2. Separation by cation exchange column in an HPLC
system. One milligram of protein, obtained by the previous
step of DEAE-Sephadex chromatography and concentrated
t o a volume of 5 ml, was charged on a Mono-S (Pharmacia,
Sweden) column (5 ml) equilibrated with 0.01 M ammonium
acetate, pH 8.2 buffer and eluted at a flow rate of 1mumin by
a linear gradient of sodium chloride molarity. The various fractions were collected according to their elution pattern, concentrated by Centricon columns (Amicon) and assayed for their
toxicity to fish. The marked fraction (arrow) which possessed
the highest toxicity (LDs0 = 0.6 pg/lOO mg b.w.), revealed a
single band on SDS-PAGE and was assessed for homogenicity
by isoelectric focusing and amino acid analysis (data not shown).
Protein content of venom fractions was determined
by the procedure of Lowry et al. ('51) with bovine serum albumin (BSA) as the standard. Purified peptides were quantsed by amino acid analysis.
zilber et al. ('91), and the modified peptides were
desalted on a Vydac C18 column in 0.1% TFA acid
with a linear gradient of 0 4 0 % acetonitrile/Z-propanol 1:l. Desalted peptides were lyophilized, resuspended in phosphate-buffered saline, pH 7.4, and
adsorbed onto polyvinylidene difluoride (PVDF)
membranes (Speicher, '89). Amino acid sequence
analysis was performed by automated Edman degradation with an Applied Biosystems (Foster City,
CA) 475A gas-phase protein sequencing system at
the Bletterman Laboratory of Macromolecular
Research (Faculty of Medicine, Hebrew University). The chromatography system was calibrated
prior to each analysis with phenylthiohydatoin
(PTH) amino acid standards. Each sequence was
confirmed in at least two separate determinations
utilizing different batches of peptide.
Amino acid analysis
Anti bodies
void volume was separated by a Mono-S column
(5 ml, Pharmacia) in an HPLC (Spectra-Physics,
San Jose, CA) system eluted by a gradient of molarity of NaCl (Figs. 1 and 2).
Electrophoretical techniques included SDSPAGE and analytical isoelectric focusing (see Fig.
4 and Lester et al., '82).
Protein determination
Preimmune serum was collected from rabbits
Analysis of amino acid composition, after acid
hydrolysis and 9-fluorenylmethoxycabonyl chloride and assayed by dot blot against a mixture of pro(FMOC-Cl) derivatization, was performed on a teins extracted from tentacles, yielding a clear
Merck-Hitachi reverse-phase HPLC system, ac- negative response. The above rabbits were immucording t o Gooderham ('83).The system was cali- nized according to Vaitukaitis ('81). Purified toxin
brated prior to each analysis with FMOC-amino (90-180 pg) were suspended in the solution of complete adjuvant in 0.1% SDS to a final volume of 2
acid standards.
ml and injected subcutaneously at 15 points. Blood
Peptide sequencing
was collected after two applications. The serum
Purified toxins were reduced and alkylated with was examined for antibodies by immunoblots (see
4-vinylpyridine as previously described by Fain- Fig. 4).
~,In order to obtain a toxin-snecific antibodv
the rabbit serum was incubated with nitrocellu- the thawed tentacles, when examined microscopilose blot strips containing purified toxin. The an- cally, was shown to include mainly discharged
tibodies which reacted with the blot were eluted nematocysts (data not shown). Toxicity was thereand assayed against a variety of protein bands fore attributed to substances originating from nemaobtained from jellyfish tentacles. The antibodies tocysts. The suspension containing the discharged
were shown to react exclusively with the toxin nematocysts was centrifuged (l,OOOg, 10 min) and
(Fig. 4).
the supernatant was dialyzed and separated by a
DEAE-cellulose anion exchange column (data not
shown). The eluate collected from the void volume
Proteins extracted from jellyfish tentacles of the anion exchange column was separated on a
were separated on a Bio-Rad (Richmond, CA) Mono-S HPLC cation exchange column (Fig. 2).
minigel apparatus a n d transferred to nitrocelAll the fractions eluted from the Mono-S collulose membranes overlayed with the toxin-spe- umn (Fig. 2) were concentrated and desalted by
cific antibodies detected w i t h the a id of a centricon filters (Amicon, Danvers, MA) and were
BM-chemiluminescence Western Blotting Kit (Rab- shown to be toxic to fish. The last fraction (Fig. 2,
bit) (Boehringer-Mannhcim, Indianapolis, IN). The marked fraction) revealed only one band on SDSaffinity-purified antibodies were used for toxin de- PAGE (Fig. 4A), was toxic to fish by injection (LD50
tection by immunoblots (Fig. 4) and light (Fig. 5), = 0.6 Fg/100 mg body weight), and was therefore
examined for purity.
as well as electron microscopy (Fig. 6).
For light microscopy, tentacles were sliced with a
Toxin characterization
Jung CM 3000 (Leica, 13Uffal0, NY)Microtome to
The single component derived from the Mono-S
sections of 8 ,um. The sections were attached to glass
slides with polylysine, and incubated with the af- marked fraction (Fig. 2) was shown t o possess a n
finity-purified antitoxin antibodies, followed by Mr of 17,000 by SDS-PAGE separation (Fig. 3).
goat anti-rabbit fluorescein isothiocyanate-labeled Isoelectric focusing (data not shown) indicated
that the single component is a basic protein of a
antibodies (Jackson, Inc., Bar Harbor, ME).
For electron microscopy, nematocysts were fixed PI around pH 9.0. The component induced rapid
with form and glutaraldehyde (1,4%, respectively) lethality in Gambusza fish (1 pg/lOO mg body
in cacodylate buffer 0.1 M, pH 7.4, for 24 h at 4°C weight within 1min). The above toxicity was comand 45 min at room temlperature. The immunogold pletely abolished by: (1)incubation in 10%enzyme
technique was employed for the postembedding to substrate ratio of pronase solution for 30 min
method (Castel et al., '93). Grids were stained with at 25"C, (2) lyophilization and (3) immersion in a
boiling water bath for 5 min, thus indicating that
uranyl acetate and lead citrate.
the toxin is a polypeptide. The amino acid sequence of a n N-terminal segment of 32 amino acRESULTS
ids of the new toxin is presented in Figure 3 and
compared to two PhA2 toxins previously isolated
The procedure of toxin purification is schemati- from the venoms of a lizard (Holoderma, Gila moncally presented i n Figure 1. The supernatant of ster) and the honey bee (Shipolini et al., '74; Sosa
Fig. 3. The sequence of the first 32 amino acids from the N-terminal end of the jellyfish
toxin is presented and compared to PhA2 toxins derived from honey bee and lizard venoms
(Shipolini el; al., 1974; Sosa et al., 1986).
et al., ’86). The above comparison (Fig. 3) suggests
that the present toxin may be defined as PhA2
like toxin.
The obvious similarity in the amino acid sequences of about 60% residue identity among toxins derived from venoms of animals belonging t o
three different phyla is striking and emphasizes
the importance and priority of PhA2 toxins in
toxinology (Rosenberg, ’90) (see also Discussion).
Toxin in the jellyfish tissues
o-isorhiza (Mariscal, ’7411 and revealed the same
pattern of toxin localization. In the discharged
nematocysts the immunocytochemical staining occurred all along the everted tubule (Fig. 5A). The
allocation of the toxin on the tubule revealed a helical shape (Fig. 5C), which parallels the helical arrangement of the barbs (Fig. 5D) (Tardent, ’88). The
latter observation has raised the possibility that the
hollow barbs (Hessinger and Ford, ‘88) may function
as a device for toxin delivev. This essential aspect
was further studied by the high resolution immunogold technique and electron microscopy (Fig. 6).
The occurrence and localization of the toxin in
the jellyfish organs might further indicate its involvement in the prey capture system. Proteins exToxin localization by electron
tracted from the jellyfish bell and its tentacles were
microscopy (EM)
separated electrophoreticaly, blotted and reacted
The precise distribution of the toxin in both restwith the toxin-specific antibody. As shown in Figing
and discharged nematocysts was studied by
ure 4, the toxin is expressed in the tentacles, but is
immunogold EM method (Caste1 et al., ’93)
completely absent from the bell tissues which, in
results are presented in Figure 6, indicating
contrast to tentacles, are devoid of nematocysts.
(I)the occurrence of the toxin in association with
Toxin localization by light microscopy (LM) the tubular structures and its absence from the
As shown in Figure 5, LM immunocytochemi- capsular lumen and walls (Fig. 6A,B); (2) the excal staining of cryostat-sliced nematocytes reveals ternal (on the “cytoplasmic”surface) allocation of
highly specific localization of the toxin, limited to the toxin on the surface of the inverted-undisthe tubular segments of the nematocysts (Fig. charged tubule (Fig. 6C,D); and (3) occurrence of
5A,B,C). The capsular lumen and wall were de- higher concentrations of toxin at the bases of the
void of immunofluorescent staining in the resting extended barbs, and their close vicinity in the
and discharged nematocysts (Fig. 5A,B). Three everted-discharged tubule (Figs. 6E, 7).
The above data (Figs. 5 and 6) allow visualmorphologically distinct types of discharged nemaization
of t h e morphological route of toxin
tocysts were observed [heterotrichous isorhiza,
and release as it is schematically
heterotrichous microbasic eurytele, holotrichous
presented in Figure 7. In the resting nematocysts
toxin is localized in the crypts (invaginations) of
the outer surface of the twisted, folded, and inverted tubule, the lumen of which is occupied by
the internalized barbs. During discharge and tubule eversion toxin is translocated from the outer
to the inner surface of the everted and extended
tubule while aggregating near the bases and
within the hollow barbs in the process of release
(Figs. 6 and 7).
Fig. 4. Analyses of the new toxin purified from the R.
nomadica jellyfish. A, SDS-PAGE electrophoresis of 2 pg of
toxin. B,C,D, immunoblots: Separation of 10 pg of protein
extracted from the fishing tentacles (b), as above from bell
tissues (C), and 0.1 pg of purified toxin (D).
The experimental approach of the present study
comprised two steps, the first aimed at the isolation and purification of an, as yet unknown,
polypeptide toxin from a jellyfish, and the second
aimed at employing the newly characterized toxin
as a probe to study its localization, translocation,
and delivery in the nematocyst.
The choice of the jellyfish as an experimental
animal was directed not only by the preexisting
information on its phenology, distribution, and
Fig. 5. Resting (B) and dlischarged (A,C,D) hematocysts
stained by an immunofluorescent technique. D: Scanning electron microscopy of the discharged extended tubule. Notice that
the fluorescent staining reveals the toxin on the tubule (A,B,C)
appearing in the form of helically arranged dots (C) parallel to
the helical arrangement of the barbs on the extended tubule
(D). Arrowhead points to unstained capsule of the discharged
nematocysts. Bars: in A, C, 2 pm; in B,D, 1pm.
availability (Lotan et al., ’92, ’94), but also by its
public health hazard and the absence of any clear,
specific information on the chemistry and pharmacological essence of its toxic substances (Carrie, ’94).
The failure of previous efforts (Endean et al.,
’93) to isolate and purify jellyfish toxins follows
from the extreme lability of these compounds t o
standard treatments such as lyophilization. In our
approach we bypassed this difficulty through the
use of separation methods which avoid lyophilization, such as dialysis and ion exchange column
Surprisingly, the resulting toxin belongs t o one
of the most common categories of toxic substances
found in reptile and artliropod venoms, namely a
PhA2 like toxin identified by its primary structure (Fig. 3).
The effect of PhA2 toxins is based on two separate mechanisms of intoxication. The first comprises
a synergic interaction with membrane-active amphipathic venom polypeptides or “direct lytic factors”
in disruption of biological membranes and lysis of
various cells (Rosenberg, ’90). The second mecha-
nism includes a more specific neurotoxic action
in the form of presynaptic toxins that affect neurotransmitter release. Furthermore, phospholipase toxins have been shown to serve as potential
models of clinical disorders such as epilepsy (convulsant action), hemolytic disorders, coagulation
disorders, and inflammation (increased levels of
arachidonic acid) (Rosenberg, ’90). With this background the occurrence of PhA2-like toxins in jellyfish tentacles and nematocytes may explain both
the local (lytic, necrotic), as well as systemic (cardiac and respiratory), effects (Carrie, ’94) of jellyfish envenomation.
Our main concern, however, was focused on the
localization, translocation, and morphological
route of delivery of the toxin by the nematocyst
system. This aspect was studied substantially by
immunocytochemistry using light and electron
The discharge of the nematocysts is driven by
the capsule’s high internal hydrostatic pressure
of 15 megapascals (approximately 150 atmospheres), which causes the eversion of the internally folded tubule (Holstein et al., ’94) and
Fig. 6. Tmmunogold electron microscopy of resting
nematocyst and discharged tubule. A: Cross-section
through intact nematocysts containing profiles of the
folded tubule (TI, which reveal the immunogold grains.
Examination by higher magnification (data not shown) indicates the absence of toxin in capsule’s lumen and wall.
B: Insert from A revealing immunogold grains located exclusively on the folded inverted tubule C: Cross-section
of inverted (resting) tubule. Immunogold grains can be
seen only on the outer surface (“cytoplasmic” surface) of
the tubule wall (arrows) while the internalized barbs (B)
occupy the tubule’s lumen. D: Insert form C revealing
immunogold grains along the external, “cytoplasmic” surface of the tubules’ wall. E: Cross-section of the discharged
everted tubule revealing the externally directed extended
barbs and the immunogold grains localized on the inner
surface of the tubule wall. Notice that grains accumulate
a t the bases of the barbs and occur within their cavities
(arrows and Fig. 4). a, tubule membrane; B, barbs; T, tubule. Bars: in A, 0.8 pm; B, 0.1 pm, C,D,E, 0.5 pm.
Fig. 7. Schematic presentation of toxin compartmentation
and delivery in the nematocyst system. The central part reveals the resting tubule who,se lumen is filled with barbs.
The toxin, represented by dots, is located on the external side
(“cytoplasmic”surface) of the tubule’s membrane (Fig. 6D).
During the discharge toxin is translocated into the tubule’s
lumen while the barbs emerge and extend. Toxin is delivered
from the everted-extended tubule through the hollow barbs.
enables its penetration into the tissues of potential prey or an opponent. The latter phenomenon
is reminiscent of the penetration of plant leaves
by pathogenic fungi using enormous turgor pressures (Howard et al., ’91). In cnidarian nematocysts high speed cinematography revealed that
tubule eversion occurs within 3 ysec at accelerations of up t o 40,OOOg (Fig. 2B) and therefore comprises one of the fastest events in
biology. However, the ultrastructural and mechanical data do not explain toxin allocation and
mode of delivery. Furthermore, even the notion
that nematocysts serve as the venom source has
not been unequivocally established. At least four
different hypotheses/models have been proposed
to explain venom release (Thomason, ’91;Tardent,
’88). These models were based on the assumption
that the toxins are stored in the lumen of either
the capsule or the tubule and are delivered
through either the tip or the surface of the tubule
during eversion.
Venom production and delivery systems in metazoans are formed of epithelial secretory glands,
collecting ducts, sharp, hollow, rigid stinging devices, and accompanying apparati of muscles and
motor, as well as sensory, nerves (Edstrom, ’92).
This multiple organ system is analogous t o a syringe-injection apparatus.
The present study clarifies how a subcellular
organelle such as the nematocyst is able to fulfill
the role required of an entire organ system in
other phyla. Our immunocytochemical approach
suggests that the cnidarian venom is stored on
the outer surface of the folded, undischarged tubule and is delivered upon its discharge (eversionextension) through the spirally arranged array of
the extended hollow barbs, thus resembling a
multiheaded poisonous arrow (Fig. 7).
Our data do not support the various proposed
models (Thomason, ’91; Tardent, ’88) of nematocyst toxin delivery, which were proposed solely on
the basis of morphological information. Our data,
however, support the hypothesis of Hessinger and
Ford (’88)that in the nematocysts of the man-ofwar hydromedusa, the barbs are hollow and are
occupied by electron-dense granules supposedly
containing venom protein, “thereby making each
barb a tiny hypodermic syringe for delivery of the
nematocyst toxins.” We assume that the hydrostatic pressure raised in the dischargeable capsule causing the tubule eversion (Holstein e t al.,
’94; Tardent, ’88) also supplies the appropriate propulsion for toxin delivery through the barb system. This notion is supported by a most recent
study revealing that the fiber-like structure of the
capsule’s inner wall provides the tensile strength
necessary t o withstand the capsule’s high osmotic
pressure (15 megapascals), which continues along
the tubule wall (Holstein et al., ’94). Thus, the
nematocyst delivery system supplies a unique example for subcellular protein translocation based
on simple mechanical forces.
In summary, the cnidarian subcellular nematocyst fulfills the role of the entire venom apparatus of advanced organisms (Lotan et al., ’95).
However, from a mechanistic point of view, the
nematocyst system is not strictly a syringe apparatus, but rather an ammunition device where the
capsule functions as the cartridge case employed
for propelling the toxin-loaded tubule, which
serves as the shell or the warhead of the system.
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