Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality?

PSM V33 D765 TurritopsisSo there might just be something positive to say about jellyfish after all. Nathaniel reports for the New York Times:

After more than 4,000 years — almost since the dawn of recorded time, when Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh that the secret to immortality lay in a coral found on the ocean floor — man finally discovered eternal life in 1988. He found it, in fact, on the ocean floor. The discovery was made unwittingly by Christian Sommer, a German marine-biology student in his early 20s. He was spending the summer in Rapallo, a small city on the Italian Riviera, where exactly one century earlier Friedrich Nietzsche conceived “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”: “Everything goes, everything comes back; eternally rolls the wheel of being. Everything dies, everything blossoms again. . . .”

Sommer was conducting research on hydrozoans, small invertebrates that, depending on their stage in the life cycle, resemble either a jellyfish or a soft coral. Every morning, Sommer went snorkeling in the turquoise water off the cliffs of Portofino. He scanned the ocean floor for hydrozoans, gathering them with plankton nets. Among the hundreds of organisms he collected was a tiny, relatively obscure species known to biologists as Turritopsis dohrnii. Today it is more commonly known as the immortal jellyfish.

Sommer kept his hydrozoans in petri dishes and observed their reproduction habits. After several days he noticed that his Turritopsis dohrnii was behaving in a very peculiar manner, for which he could hypothesize no earthly explanation. Plainly speaking, it refused to die. It appeared to age in reverse, growing younger and younger until it reached its earliest stage of development, at which point it began its life cycle anew.

Sommer was baffled by this development but didn’t immediately grasp its significance. (It was nearly a decade before the word “immortal” was first used to describe the species.) But several biologists in Genoa, fascinated by Sommer’s finding, continued to study the species, and in 1996 they published a paper called “Reversing the Life Cycle.” The scientists described how the species — at any stage of its development — could transform itself back to a polyp, the organism’s earliest stage of life, “thus escaping death and achieving potential immortality.” This finding appeared to debunk the most fundamental law of the natural world — you are born, and then you die…

[continues in the New York Times]


Majestic is gadfly emeritus.

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5 Comments on "Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality?"

  1. So I guess to be immortal we would all have to become Benjamin Button!

  2. BuzzCoastin | Nov 29, 2012 at 8:18 pm |

    death keeps gross stupidity in check
    & cleans the gene pool
    jellyfish may not need that, but humans do

  3. DestroyErase | Nov 29, 2012 at 10:53 pm |

    We don’t know how many times it can pull off this hat trick though. Contain one and study it for as long as it regresses back and forth. If it stops doing that and dies, you’ll know they have limits towards how long they can cheat death. If it does not die, then we will never know if it is truly immortal; if its lifespan transcends human existence and lives past the age of the last living human, we still would not know if it is immortal, or simply waiting patiently for the last sentient being to leave its company so it may die in solitude.

  4. jellyfish may or may not be for or against, but yeah, maybe no…ask Richard Lewis

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