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The otherworldly glow of jellyfish may seem an unlikely weapon against cancer.

Jellies are known more for bobbing around docks or washing up in a blob on beaches than for breakthroughs in medicine.

But in the dark of the open sea, jellyfish become both elegant and alien. The bell-shaped bodies of some species even perform one of the animal kingdom’s showiest tricks — they create light.

That bioluminescence, which appears as a multi-colored pulse, is what attracted the attention of marine biologist Osamu Shimomura, who was awarded a 2008 Nobel Prize in chemistry for research of green fluorescent protein in jellyfish.

Shimomura was first to isolate the protein that causes the jellies to light up in 1962 and the discovery was later adapted to track cancerous cell growth in the body.

That may explain Sasebo’s new obsession with the jellyfish.

Shimomura was raised in Nagasaki Prefecture just to the south of Sasebo [he was temporarily blinded in the atomic bombing] and since his award last year, the city has celebrated the success of a man it considers a native son.

A local hamburger shop started serving a version of the famous Sasebo burger that included a topping of dried jellyfish. The fervor over jellies peaked in July with the opening of the city’s newly renovated Shining Sea aquarium.

The aquarium, which claims to now have one of the best jellyfish exhibits in Japan, proved wildly popular in its first month, drawing large crowds and snarling traffic.

The jellyfish exhibit, called the "symphony dome," was promoted along with a dolphin exhibit as a centerpiece of the new facility. The dome is a darkened theater where various types of jellies endemic to the Ninety-nine Islands marine area in Sasebo glow under black lights.

During a visit in August, kabuto jellyfish, a thumb-sized variety named after the helmets worn by samurai, flitted around a porthole-shaped aquarium tank. Streams of light, similar to those that fascinated Shimomura, pulsed along their helmet-like bodies.

Another tank teemed with water jellyfish, a variety that is a common sight along the shores of northwestern Japan.

Others in the dome exhibit were also named after their shapes, including "hook handed" and "squash" jellies.

Meanwhile, below the hushed theater, a biological engine keeps Sasebo’s jellyfish show running.

Jellyfish are ancient invertebrates that date back hundreds of millions of years, but individuals typically have a life span of no more than one year and sometimes much shorter.

To counter such a high attrition rate, the aquarium operates a jellyfish nursery.

Hundreds of tiny juvenile jellyfish are born into large beakers in the nursery laboratory below the symphony dome. The young, some not much bigger than silt, are fed particles of food pumped through a network of tubes into their containers.

The nursery and its network of tubes and beakers provide a replenishing population of jellyfish for Shining Sea, as well as a lesson on the aquarium’s inner workings. Meanwhile, a display of Shimomura’s work in the laboratory nursery explains the importance of jellies and their glowing protein to science and medicine.

The city had waited through a yearlong renovation for the experience.

As hundreds of children and families poured through the exhibit this summer, the city’s jellyfish were finally on display in all their wonder and beauty – qualities that once inspired a Nobel Prize.

The symphony dome, with its small tanks and moderate variety, is not likely to inspire the next breakthrough in cancer treatment.

But whether jellyfish are on burgers, in laboratories or at the award podium in Stockholm, Sasebo is not likely to lose its fascination with them anytime soon.


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