The Immortal Jellyfish

There is a species of small jellyfish that will, when it is sick or injured, instead of dying, regenerate itself. It will sink “to the bottom of the ocean floor, where its body folds in on itself—assuming the jellyfish equivalent of the fetal position. The bell reabsorbs the tentacles, and then it degenerates further until it becomes a gelatinous blob. Over the course of several days, this blob forms an outer shell. Next it shoots out stolons, which resemble roots.” These stolons grow into new jellyfish.

The description is from Nathaniel Rich’s article, “Forever and Ever” in the New York Times Magazine (Dec. 2, 2012). Over two years, one lab colony of such jellyfish rebirthed itself ten times. The jellyfish’s official name is Turritopsis dohrnii and its not-surprising nickname is the Benjamin Button jellyfish. As different from us as it may look, our genetic makeups are surprisingly similar.

We view death as part of the definition of life, as a boundary that all living things share. But death, it turns out, is not absolute. The clichés that “you live and then you die” and “life is short” tap into more complexity than they were intended to. Bacteria , for example, divide in two: individual bacterium may be destroyed or die from illness, injury, or antibiotics, but most of them form identical clones, which then clone again and again. And as for life being brief, Buffalograss, a prairie plant resistant to weather extremes, sprouts underground stems which in some locations may have been growing for the last 15,000 years. Among individual plants, the Bristlecone Pine named Methuselah in California, is coming up on its 5000th birthday. And Wikipedia’s lengthy “List of Longest Living Organisms” begins with a note that “This list is incomplete.”

Today the immortal jellyfish is a specialty of Dr. Shin Kubota at Kyota University’s Seto Marine Biological Laboratory. Kubota spends much of his days feeding, caring for, and observing his wards. A prolific researcher, Kabuto is also spiritual and a little eccentric. His expressed goal is to become young again himself, even to achieve immortality, or at least to point a way towards a cure for cancer.

In what ways might our knowledge of rejuvenating jellyfish and other exceptions to the rule of death change our perspective on our mortality? Not surprisingly such reports encourage daydreams of life-prolonging gene splicings. But they also complicate and enrich our view of the vulnerabilities and persistence of living things.

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