The “Portuguese man o’ war” jellyfish cause panic and alarm, and an encounter can be extremely painful. But now these dreaded, floating organisms can also be turned into high-value cosmetic products.

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Anne-May Johansen  

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We’re talking about a jellyfish – a beautiful organism with a large, transparent bladder or “float” with a sail-like crest on top, and long tentacles with highly venomous nettle cells used to kill fish – highly dangerous to anyone who comes into contact with it. It is extremely abundant in tropical seas, and a common, but highly unwelcome visitor on beaches.  

A valuable marine species

And yet, this dreaded jellyfish with the scientific name Physalia physalis is not without its benefits. In the international research project PhyPhy, scientists have established that in addition to being one of the most dangerous marine species out there, it is also one of the most valuable. 

“The Portuguese man o’ war is an exciting and untapped source of several potential high-value products. Even its dreaded venom could prove to be valuable”, says scientist Marte Jenssen. 

She is the head of Nofima’s team in the project, a collaboration with partners that include two Portuguese research institutions and a Mesosystem SA, a cosmetic manufacturer  

The aim of the PhyPhy Project is to extract valuable components from Physalia physalis for use in the medical and cosmetic industries. Among other things, it involves developing a process for mass extraction of collagen for commercial purposes. The scientists involved see the potential for a new series of products that can be used in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. 

Dangerously beautiful. The colonial organism Physalia physalis, commonly known as the “Portuguese man o’war”, is not only very beautiful and highly venomous – it is also full of valuable substances which can now be harvested with the help of modern technology. Photo: Marc Tolosa

Nofima’s role in the project

The jellyfish used in the project were collected in the Azores archipelago off the coast of Portugal, where they create massive problems for tourists visiting the local beaches. Portuguese scientists extracted toxins from the tentacles, to be evaluated for use for medical and cosmetic purposes, for example in fighting cancer. 

“Can the natural toxin be used as the chemotherapy of the future in cancer medicine? Many of the drugs currently used in cancer treatment are of natural origin”, says Marte Jenssen. 

After the toxins were removed, the rest of the jellyfish were transported to Nofima in Tromsø so that the collagen, which is used in the cosmetic industry, can be extracted.   

“Nofima’s role in the project is to increase the scale of the collagen extraction. We have the facilities for upscaling in place, all the way from laboratory scales up to large-scale industrial production in the national pilot plant Biotep. In the PhyPhy project, we will use 30-litre tanks – which has proven to be a complicated process,” says the Nofima scientist.

As much collagen as possible

Collagen ball. This is what the valuable collagen can look like after being extracted from the colony jellyfish Physalia physalis. Photo: Marte Jenssen, Nofima

Bluebottles have a highly gelatinous structure, which makes it a bit difficult to work with. 

“It is quite different from other raw materials we have extracted collagen from in the past, such as fish skin, so it will be very exciting to see the final results. Our aim is to extract as much high-quality collagen as possible, through the cheapest and most environmentally friendly process possible”, states Marte Jenssen. 

The collagen will be used as it is, but it will also be hydrolyzed – broken down into smaller peptides – to see how this process affects properties such as solubility. 

“The collagen will later be used in various skin products, so solubility is key. We will also study relevant bioactivities, such as effects on skin cells”, she explains. 

Efforts are now made to extract toxins and collagen, and to find new enzymes for hydrolysis of collagen.   

The project is now wrapping up and should be completed in April. According to Marte Jenssen, many exciting discoveries regarding both toxins and collagen have been made so far. 

From problem to resource?

Jellyfish blooms are a problem in many parts of the world. In Norway, string jellyfish are increasingly becoming a nuisance, creating major problems in the aquaculture industry, among other things. The question is whether ongoing research can turn jellyfish from a problem into a resource?

“If we are going to develop processes that can enable us to harvest as much jellyfish as possible from the sea and produce collagen in a sustainable manner, more research will be needed to refine and improve this process”, says Marte Jenssen. 


  • Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body. It is a structural protein and a major component of bone, skin, muscles, tendons, and cartilage, and is essential for the body to function optimally.
  • Gelatin, which we use to make jelly and other tasty treats, is made by hydrolyzing collagen. Most of the gelatin used in Norway is made from pigs.
  • The bluebottle, also known as the Portuguese man o’ war (Physalia physalis), is a species of small jellyfish in the order siphonophores – actually a colonial organism, made up of numerous microscopic venomous cnidocytes. The large, ship-shaped gas-filled bladder functions as both a flotation device and a sail and can be up to 20 centimeters long.
  • Long tentacles, up to several meters long and equipped with venomous nematocysts (nettle cells), hang below the bladder. The venom can kill fish, and stings usually cause severe pain to humans and can trigger allergic reactions. 
  • Portuguese man o’ wars can be encountered along beaches in warmer regions.
  • The jellyfish has special polyps for eating with, and other special polyps for procreation. One colony can consist of many hundreds of individual organisms.
  • Portuguese man o’ wars are native to warmer waters, including in the Mediterranean and along the coast of Africa, but can be found all around the world. The jellyfish do not have any means of propulsion, but rather use their sail to move with the prevailing wind and ocean currents – sometimes even carrying them up to our shores.

Source: Great Norwegian Encyclopedia and Nofima

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