Science & Technology

A Literally Immortal Jellyfish Could Teach Scientists How to Live Forever

Humans have long been fascinated by the prospect of living forever. Even in recent decades, high-profile billionaires have spent their riches on up-and-coming technology claiming to help them achieve immortality. Before you get your hopes up, the secret to immortality is not necessarily putting a stop to aging. Instead, it might require reversing your life cycle back to the very first stage. At least, that's the method used by the Turritopsis dohrnii — also known as the immortal jellyfish.

The Forever Jelly

T. dohrnii was discovered in the Mediterranean Sea in the 1880s, though it's since been observed off the coasts of Panama, Florida, Spain, and Japan as well. Despite the fact it was familiar to scientists for more than a century, they didn't discover its strange ability until the 1990s. When faced with starvation, physical damage, or an external threat, the jellyfish transforms itself into a polyp — its earliest stage of life.

Under normal circumstances, T. dohrnii reproduces the old-fashioned way: with sperm and eggs. But when faced with starvation, physical damage, or another crisis, it transforms its existing cells into a younger state through a conversion process known as transdifferentiation: the same process scientists use to turn stem cells into other human cells. During this stage, the jellyfish attaches itself to a sturdy surface, converts into a blob-like form, then transforms into a colony of polyps. It's the first known multicellular animal capable of reverting completely to a sexually immature stage after having reached full maturity.

It may be known as the immortal jellyfish, but that doesn't mean T. dohrnii can't die. They can still be killed, especially in their vulnerable polyp stage, by predators or illness. However, their small size keeps them hidden from most things in the ocean — a fully grown T. dohrnii is only about 4.5 millimeters (0.18 inches) across, about the size of your pinky nail. It's also mostly transparent, which makes it extremely hard to find.

Scientists Are Using this Discovery of "Backwards Aging" For Medical Research

As you might expect, the discovery of an immortal animal is of plenty of interest to medical researchers. By studying the transdifferentiation capabilities of T. dohrnii, scientists can further examine whether biological aging can be slowed down or reversed. It may be possible to follow T. dohrnii's lead by transforming our own cells into a younger state in order to reverse aging.

If you find the topic of immortality as interesting as we do, check out the book "Immortality: The Quest To Live Forever and How It Drives Civilizations" by Stephen Cave. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Annie Hartman June 22, 2018

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