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Upside-down jellyfish. Credit: Peter Holderness / Caltech

Even jellyfish need their beauty sleep, according to a study conducted at CalTech and published Thursday in Current Biology. Jellyfish don't have brains, just a diffuse webbing of cells called a 'nerve net.' But despite their seemingly simple nervous system, they enter an inactive period each night. And when jellyfish don't catch enough Z's, they lag behind the next day — just like humans do.

Why it matters: It's (essentially) impossible to test if all animals sleep. But if "sleep is conserved from jellyfish all the way to humans, which are almost the furthest evolutionary distance you can go in animals," it would suggest sleep has ancient origins, Claire Bedbrook, one of the authors of the study, tells Axios. Not only does this mean sleep probably only evolved once long ago, it also "really highlights how important sleep is for animals," she adds.

There are three major characteristics that need to be exhibited for something to be defined as sleep:

  • A regularly occurring period of inactivity.
  • During that period, the animal needs to respond slower to a stimulus — sort of like drowsiness when humans first wake up.
  • Finally, the sleep needs to be necessary to the animal's survival.

What they did: The researchers designed a series of experiments to test each of these criteria.

  • Reduced activity: They observed the jellyfish for 6 days, and found that they pulsed 32% more slowly at night.
  • Stimuli response: As their name suggests, upside-down jellyfish spend most of their time upside-down on the sea floor. When the researchers moved them to the top of the tank, they quickly returned to the bottom. But if they were dropped into the column at night, they took longer to re-orient.
  • Skipping sleep: How do you keep a jellyfish awake? Squirt it with water, apparently. The scientists scheduled a pump that sent a pulse of water towards the jellyfish every 20 minutes. After a constant night of harassment, they were 17% less active the next day.

What's next: Jellyfish sleep, but do they dream? What does their sleep look like neurologically? Do the same genes that regulate sleep in humans regulate them in jellyfish? The researchers hope others will look into these questions.

One last thought: When we think about sleep research, we usually think about brain scans and REM cycles. But this study suggests that at its core, a nightly slumber is fundamental and necessary. "If sleep is found in such a simple and basic animal, maybe the function is simple and basic as well," says Michael Abrams, another author on the study. Though of course, he notes, jellyfish aren't actually simple. They've been evolving just as long as humans have.

Go deeper

Symone Sanders leaving VP's office

Vice President Kamala Harris and her press secretary Symone Sanders. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Symone Sanders, senior advisor and chief spokesperson to Vice President Kamala Harris, is leaving the VP’s office by the end of this year, three White House officials told Axios on Wednesday.

Why it matters: The VP has faced an onslaught of criticism in her first year centered on her leadership and staff, adding to the suggestion, she’s not the Democratic Party’s preferred nominee for 2024.

Bryan Walsh, author of Future
Updated 1 hour ago - Health

Omicron travel bans are sign of what's to come

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The travel bans and border closures prompted by the Omicron variant likely won't fully prevent its spread, but that won't stop countries from leaning on the measures.

Why it matters: The rapid speed at which countries turned to travel bans with the emergence of Omicron indicates border controls will increasingly become a weapon against infectious disease — whether or not public health experts agree they are effective.

2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

GOP fights itself on shutdown politics

Reporters question Senate Minority Whip John Thune before the Republican Party's weekly lunch on Tuesday. Photo: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

GOP leaders on Capitol Hill are scrambling to reach a deal with a bloc of 15 Senate Republicans threatening a government shutdown to force a fight over the Biden administration's vaccine mandates.

Why it matters: The push to defund the mandates — by holding the short-term government funding bill hostageis largely symbolic, and highly controversial within the Republican Party. A shutdown as early as midnight Friday could trigger everything from national park closures to delays in receiving Social Security checks.

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