This article has been reviewed according to Science X's editorial process and policies. Editors have highlighted the following attributes while ensuring the content's credibility:


peer-reviewed publication

trusted source


Single gene causes stinging cell to lose its sting

Single gene causes stinging cell to lose its sting
Morphological and phylogenetic diversity of stinging cells. a, b Discharged nematocyte (SEM) from the mesentery of the sea anemone Nematostella vectensis showing apical flaps (b —green, false colored) and spines along the everted harpoon (white arrow). c Apex of undischarged nematocyte (TEM) from the mesentery of N. vectensis showing apical flaps (green) and thick capsule wall (arrowheads). d Discharged spirocytes (SEM) from the tentacles of the sea anemone Calliactis tricolor showing lack of apical flaps and no spines on the everted tubule (white arrow). e, f Undischarged spirocytes (TEM) from the tentacles of N. vectensis showing an apical cap (orange, false colored) and a thin, serrated capsule wall (white arrowheads). The serrated appearance of the spirocyte capsule wall arises from an internal network of regularly spaced fibers (white arrowheads in f). Fine lateral rods adorn the tubule and appear as small, dark puncta in cross section (black arrowhead in e). g, h SEMs of a broken nematocyst capsule from N. vectensis showing the thick capsule wall (black arrowheads). i Intact spirocyte capsule from N. vectensis; the coils of the tubule are visible through the thin capsule wall (two coils are delineated with dashed lines). j Discharged ptychocyte (SEM) from the body wall of the tube anemone Ceriantheopsis americana; the everted tubule lacks spines but has longitudinal pleats (white arrow). k Apex of undischarged ptychocyte from the body wall of C. americana showing no specialization (purple, false colored). l Cross section of pleated tubule inside the capsule of an undischarged ptychocyte from C. americana; the capsule wall is thin and not serrated (white arrowheads). m Cladogram of cnidarians, after Kayal et al.; boxes to the right indicate presence (gray) or absence (white) of each type of stinging cell. The hypothesized origins of the three stinging cell types are plotted on the tree. Stippled gray reflects highly derived stinging cells in myxozoans. N nematocyte, S spirocyte, P ptychocyte. *Non-cerianthid hexacorals; this clade does not currently have an accepted name. +Myxozoans and Polypodium. Credit: Nature Communications (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-023-36615-9

When scientists disabled a single regulatory gene in a species of sea anemone, a stinging cell that shoots a venomous miniature harpoon for hunting and self-defense shifted to shoot a sticky thread that entangles prey instead, according to a new study.

The research, carried out in the sea anemone Nematostella vectensis, shows how disabling a gene, called NvSox2, enabled a transition from a piercing cell (called a nematocyte), to a sticky, ensnaring cell (called a spirocyte). The finding suggests that the nematocyte cell may have evolved from a spirocyte, thanks to the development of the NvSox2 gene.

"This one gene controls a switch between two alternative cell fates; it controls a whole suite of traits that gave this cell a completely different identity," said Leslie Babonis, assistant professor of ecology and at Cornell University.

Babonis is the corresponding author of "Single-Cell Atavism Reveals an Ancient Mechanism of Cell Type Diversification in a Sea Anemone" published in Nature Communications.

"Stinging " are found in all cnidarians—including sea anemones, corals, hydrae and jellyfish. They served as a model cell in the paper since they come in several dozen , with different shapes and functions, allowing researchers to explore fundamental evolutionary questions of how a single cell type can become extremely diverse with many different forms.

At its core, this line of study seeks to better understand the evolution of animal diversity, as all originated from that became more complex as cells specialized and differentiated over time.

The findings underscore the fact that a kind of flexibility of function is built into the genetic architecture of stinging cells in N. vectensis. For example, if a small population of N. vectensis were to move into a new environment where a sticky thread proved more advantageous than a piercing harpoon cell, it would take only a small mutation in one gene to make the switch.

"Being able to 'choose' between different cell types gives an animal a lot of flexibility to invade new habitats and evolve new traits," Babonis said.

Nematocytes and spirocytes both contain a novel organelle composed of a thick, pressurized capsule. When prey or predator is detected nearby, the pressurized capsule collapses, forcing a projectile out of the cell—a harpoon in the case of nematocytes, and a sticky prey-entangling thread in spirocytes.

Babonis and colleagues used CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing to knock out an NvSox2, a transcription factor that binds to DNA and changes the expression of downstream. By doing so, the researchers discovered that NvSox2's role was to silence the development of sticky cells and promote the development of piercing cells in their place.

"The cells looked completely different and had a completely different function than the cells in the wild-type animals," Babonis said.

In future work, Babonis and colleagues plan to investigate the breadth of this phenomenon by searching for the same single-gene control over two cell fates in other species of cnidarians, including a closely related species of coral. A long term goal of the project is to work backward to identify the minimum set of genes needed to make a stinging cell that can still shoot a projectile. From there, they will experiment with variations.

"Can we make a type of stinging cell that has never evolved before?" Babonis asked. For example, she said, a tiny cell that shoots a small hypodermic needle could have valuable medical applications.

More information: Leslie S. Babonis et al, Single-cell atavism reveals an ancient mechanism of cell type diversification in a sea anemone, Nature Communications (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-023-36615-9

Journal information: Nature Communications

Provided by Cornell University

Citation: Single gene causes stinging cell to lose its sting (2023, February 23) retrieved 30 May 2023 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Explore further

Jellyfish's stinging cells hold clues to the emergence of new cell types


Feedback to editors