MadSci Network: Chemistry

Re: What is in urine that stops the sting of jellyfish?

Date: Sat Nov 11 15:41:49 2000
Posted By: Bryan Grieg Fry, Ph.D. candidate, Centre for Drug Design & Development
Area of science: Chemistry
ID: 972600660.Ch

Sorry it took so long to answer, I've been out in the field scuba diving 
for sea snakes  ;-)

Here in Australia, all the surf-life saving huts are stocked with vinegar, 
all boats have them on board (at least in the tropical waters)  and many 
people actually carry it in the boot of their car.  The reason is quite 
simple, it may end up saving a life.  The box jellyfish is one of, if the 
the most, most toxically venomous animals on earth and is the only 
jellyfish that regularily kills people.  The stinging cells on the 
tentacles are neutralised by dilute ethanoic acid (that is all vinegar is, 
just a diluted solution of ethanoic acid).  Neutralisation of the stinging 
cells is essential before the tentacles are removed, otherwise the act of 
removal may result in further envenomation.

Interestingly, alcohol causes the cells to fire.  This is interesting since 
ethanoic acid (vinegar) is simply the acidic form of the ethanol molecule.  
Ethanol is the alcohol that is in wine, etc..  Its amazing how a very small 
change in a molecule can have profound differences in activity.

As for the urine use, first time I've heard that one.  The vinegar is used 
to prevent further stings but has no effect on the stings that have already 
occured, thus the urine action is not a substitute per se.


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