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Wed Nov 28, 2012, 09:51 AM

Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality?


By NATHANIEL RICH
Published: November 28, 2012 12 Comments

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.
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http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/02/magazine/can-a-jellyfish-unlock-the-secret-of-immortality.html?hp

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Arrow 21 replies Author Time Post
Reply Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality? (Original post)
n2doc Nov 2012 OP
MADem Nov 2012 #1
Gore1FL Nov 2012 #10
MADem Nov 2012 #13
riverbendviewgal Nov 2012 #2
LiberalEsto Nov 2012 #3
phantom power Nov 2012 #5
GaYellowDawg Dec 2012 #21
TwilightGardener Nov 2012 #4
kmlisle Nov 2012 #6
SheilaT Nov 2012 #9
MADem Nov 2012 #14
Ilsa Nov 2012 #17
MADem Nov 2012 #20
antigop Nov 2012 #7
Arugula Latte Nov 2012 #8
Rider3 Nov 2012 #11
DavidDvorkin Nov 2012 #12
MADem Nov 2012 #15
drmeow Nov 2012 #16
tclambert Nov 2012 #18
Don C. Nuttin Nov 2012 #19

Response to n2doc (Original post)

Wed Nov 28, 2012, 10:03 AM

1. Fascinating--I wouldn't want to have to go through grammar school again, though!

Funny, Family Guy recently did an episode where time ran backwards and Stewie grew younger!!! That Japanese scientist says it's not outside the realm of possibility, too...!

Kubota, however, has no such compunction. “Turritopsis application for human beings is the most wonderful dream of mankind,” he told me the first time I called him. “Once we determine how the jellyfish rejuvenates itself, we should achieve very great things. My opinion is that we will evolve and become immortal ourselves.”

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Response to MADem (Reply #1)

Wed Nov 28, 2012, 12:48 PM

10. I'd love to go through school again

I would so kick ass at it now!

(And I'd get laid a lot in high school knowing what I know now.)

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Response to Gore1FL (Reply #10)

Wed Nov 28, 2012, 01:51 PM

13. Ha ha ha...would we remember, going backwards, is that the trick?

Or would we have to relearn anew?

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Response to n2doc (Original post)

Wed Nov 28, 2012, 10:32 AM

2. very fascinating

Brings to my mind the TV series Mork and Mindy also the Brad Pitt button movie.

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Response to n2doc (Original post)

Wed Nov 28, 2012, 10:38 AM

3. I love the point the researcher made

about humans not yet deserving immortality. We need to evolve much further, to respect nature.

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Response to LiberalEsto (Reply #3)

Wed Nov 28, 2012, 11:10 AM

5. I will make two arguments against his statement

1) There are no living things that 'respect nature.' They all breed and consume until something stops them. Predators, starvation, disease, etc. If humans ever achieved this feat, we'd be the first. (not that we shouldn't, mind you)

2) Mortality has a huge impact on decision making, and it isn't always a good impact. The phrase "in the long run, we're all dead" is a cliche for a reason. Costing the long-term impacts into decision making has very little payoff for an organism with a life expectancy of < 100 years. If humans lived a lot longer, longer-term thinking would have a greater payoff. Also, it would allow humans to directly experience how nature changes over time, with human activity. And so there would be greater intuitive understanding of the longer term effects of the things we do. With our current life span, any one human only sees a very narrow slice of how things change. We have no intuition for longer periods.

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Response to phantom power (Reply #5)

Tue Dec 4, 2012, 01:08 AM

21. Very well said.

Both points. Thanks for a great reply.

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Response to n2doc (Original post)

Wed Nov 28, 2012, 10:42 AM

4. Very cool article, thanks.

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Response to n2doc (Original post)

Wed Nov 28, 2012, 12:26 PM

6. Living longer sounds great at first

And then you have to think about all the implications for the environment and for population control and if we live really long how will we adapt to it socially and psychologically. We already see the problems and benefits of living longer as human average life span has essentially doubled over the last hundred years. There is also the question of whether the technology involved in longer life or even immortality will involve cost that will separate the human race into long lived and short lived populations according to their means and of course the kind of society we build when those opportunities present themselves. One science fiction writer who deals with these issue along with global warming and the terra-forming of Mars and other planets is Kim Stanley Robinson. In his near future worlds people live 150 to 300 years and all those problems and opportunities are dealt with. Highly recommend if you are interested in the "what ifs" of this scenario.

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Response to kmlisle (Reply #6)

Wed Nov 28, 2012, 12:42 PM

9. The lengthening of the human life span

is almost entirely due to a huge drop in infant and childhood mortality. That's very important to keep in mind. People did not grow up sooner, age faster, and die of old age at a much earlier rate. No. If they made it to age 10, they'd probably make it to at least 50 or 60. And living to age 70 and more was by no means unheard of in the past. It's just that a lot more of us make to old age than we used to, mainly because we're not dying of all sorts of things earlier.

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Response to kmlisle (Reply #6)

Wed Nov 28, 2012, 01:54 PM

14. One would hope that the smart ones would figure out that it's best to "live a little" before

reproducing--eschew teen pregnancies, wait until sixty or seventy, when you've gotten all that "living" out of the way! Of course, this would assume that we're all healthy well into very old age; and our "business" still works without age taking its toll!

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Response to MADem (Reply #14)

Wed Nov 28, 2012, 03:54 PM

17. Unfortunately, Mother Nature says "No"

to healthy offspring, on average, the older we get, whether male or female. A lot more congenital, chronic physical and mental health problems are being tied to advanced maternal or advanced paternal age.
But I appreciate the idea of waiting until we've appreciated life more!

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Response to Ilsa (Reply #17)

Thu Nov 29, 2012, 10:52 AM

20. I understand that...but if we can convince Mother Nature to say "no" to mortality, perhaps we can

also convince her to put our reproductive abilities in the deep freeze until we're truly mature enough to make the best use of them--say, age fifty or seventy--assuming we're robust and healthy, and are going to live to 150 or 200 anyway!

Imagine having the wisdom of years AND the knees and hips of a sixteen year old!

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Response to n2doc (Original post)

Wed Nov 28, 2012, 12:33 PM

8. The Benjamin Button of sea life?

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Response to n2doc (Original post)

Wed Nov 28, 2012, 12:55 PM

11. Who'd want to?

Really, who would want to be immortal? No thanks.

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Response to Rider3 (Reply #11)

Wed Nov 28, 2012, 01:32 PM

12. I do.

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Response to Rider3 (Reply #11)

Wed Nov 28, 2012, 01:57 PM

15. If I could stay healthy? Sure...at least for two or three hundred years.

I am a terribly curious person--I think I will run out of time before I run out of curiosity!

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Response to Rider3 (Reply #11)

Wed Nov 28, 2012, 02:28 PM

16. I'm with you!

If I was fabulously wealthy I wouldn't mind living longer as long as I stayed healthy and mobile; but live forever? MEH.

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Response to n2doc (Original post)

Wed Nov 28, 2012, 06:06 PM

18. I have an immortal species in my garden--a strawberry plant.

I started with one plant growing in a pot. Now runners have planted offshoots of that original plant in many, many other pots. Same DNA. Not exactly clones. They are all the same plant really, expanding and expanding and expanding, taking over more and more of the universe. And they'be been doing this for MILLIONS of years. (Not all of those millions of years took place in my garden.)

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Response to n2doc (Original post)

Wed Nov 28, 2012, 09:12 PM

19. Mitt Romney can't unlock the secret to immortality!

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