The International Journal of Developmental Biology

Int. J. Dev. Biol. 56: 577 - 582 (2012)

Vol 56, Issue 6-7-8

Special Issue: The Hydra Model System

The Nematocyst: a molecular map of the Cnidarian stinging organelle

Published: 5 June 2012

Anna Beckmann and Suat Özbek*

Department for Molecular Evolution and Genomics, Centre for Organismal Studies, University of Heidelberg, Heidelberg, Germany


Nematocysts or cnidocysts represent the common feature of all cnidarians. They are large organelles produced from the Golgi apparatus as a secretory product within a specialized cell, the nematocyte or cnidocyte. Nematocysts are predominantly used for prey capture and defense, but also for locomotion. In spite of large variations in size and morphology, nematocysts share a common build comprising a cylindrical capsule to which a long hollow thread is attached. The thread is inverted and coiled within the capsule and may be armed with spines in some nematocyst types. During the discharge of nematocysts following a chemical or mechanical stimulus, the thread is expelled from within the capsule matrix in a harpoon-like fashion. This process constitutes one of the fastest in biology and is accompanied by a release of toxins that are potentially harmful also for humans. The long history of research on Hydra as a model organism has been accompanied by the cellular, mechanistic and morphological analysis of its nematocyst repertoire. Although representing one of the most complex organelles of the animal kingdom, the evolutionary origin and molecular map of the nematocyst has remained largely unknown. Recent efforts in unraveling the molecular content of this fascinating organelle have revealed intriguing parallels to the extracellular matrix.


cnidocyst, hydra, morphogenesis, basal metazoa, matrix

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