Hearing Anemones

April 2, 2017
By Damond Benningfield

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Sea anemones may someday be used to help repair hearing in humans. Credit: public domain

Loud music, roaring jet engines, heavy construction, and other piercing sounds are often described as “ear-splitting.” And that’s not far from the truth. They can destroy tiny hairs in the ear that detect sound waves, causing a hearing loss. And so far, there’s no way to repair the damage. But researchers have found some cause for hope in the tentacles of the sea anemone.

The tentacles are lined with thousands of tiny hair-like structures that sense vibrations from nearby prey. In essence, they “hear” a potential meal as it gets close, allowing them to prepare to grab it. Unlike the hairs in the ears of people and other mammals, though, damaged anemone hairs regenerate -- and they do it in as little as a few minutes.

Researchers at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette looked into that process. They found that a coating of mucus on the tentacles contains a mixture of about three dozen proteins. Those proteins quickly restore damaged hairs.

The researchers then tested the mixture on a species of fish. When those tests were successful, they moved on to mice. They soaked damaged hair bundles in the protein mixture for an hour. When they examined the hairs under a microscope, they found they’d regenerated.

That suggests that similar treatment might restore lost hearing in other mammals -- including people. But the research is still in its early stages. So there’s a long way to go before proteins from the sea anemone can help anyone with noise-related hearing loss.