The Immortal Jellyfish

There is a species of small jellyfish that will, when it is sick or injured, instead of dying, fully 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.

Turritopsis dohrnii  (Wikipedia)

The description is from Nathaniel Rich’s article 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; its nickname, the Benjamin Button jellyfish. As different from humans as it may look, our genetic makeups are similar.

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

We think of dying as a boundary that all living things share, part of the definition of being alive. But death is not so absolute. Clichés such as “you live and then you die” and “life is short” inadvertently call all the more attention to their exceptions. Bacteria, for example, don’t always die; they often divide. An individual bacterium may be destroyed or die from illness, injury, or antibiotics, but usually bacteria divide (or is it multiply?) into identical clones, which in turn will divide again.

And as for life being “short,” Buffalo grass, a prairie plant resistant to extreme weather, 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” still grows in California as it approaches its 5000th birthday. And Wikipedia’s lengthy “List of longest-living organisms” is not only long itself but has spawned the likes of “List of oldest dogs.”

I can understand that words for death and dying help people share their fears and grief when one of their group passes away from the circle of the living. And I can understand the simultaneous desire to imagine that that person is not “really dead” but is still alive in another realm. But perhaps we don’t need to reach into a spiritual world for such consolation. We might take to heart the models here on Earth of how living, reproducing, self-healing, and dying vary so widely among species.

 

 

Neil deGrasse Tyson on the Hidden Costs of a Cosmic Perspective

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry describes the biggest of topics, the workings of the cosmos. So it’s a pleasant surprise in the conclusion when he takes it down a notch and asks where, in all this astral splendor, do we humans fit in.

Wikipedia

       The cosmic view comes with a hidden cost. When I travel thousands of miles to spend a few moments in the fast-moving shadow during a total solar eclipse, sometimes I lose sight of Earth.

       When I pause and reflect on our expanding universe, with its galaxies hurtling away from one another, embedded within the ever stretching, four-dimensional fabric of space and time, sometimes I forget that uncounted people walk this earth without food or shelter….

       When I track the orbits of asteroids, comets, and planets… sometimes I forget that too many people act in wanton disregard for the delicate interplay of Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and land.…

       I occasionally forget those things because, however big the world is…the universe is even bigger.

     …[So I] think of people not as the masters of space and time but as participants in a great cosmic chain of being, with a direct genetic link across species both living and extinct, extending back nearly four billion years to the earliest single-celled organisms on Earth….If a huge genetic gap separated us from our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, we could justifiably celebrate our brilliance. We might be entitled to walk around thinking we are distant and distinct from our fellow creatures. But no such gap exists. Instead we are one with the rest of nature, fitting neither above nor below, but within.

     [The cosmic perspective is] more than about what you know. It’s also about having the wisdom and insight to apply that knowledge to assessing our place in the universe.

     The cosmic perspective is humble….

     [It is] spiritual–even redemptive–but not religious….

     [It] enables us to grasp, in the same thought, the large and the small….

     [It] opens our eyes to the universe, not as a benevolent cradle designed to nurture life but as a cold, lonely, hazardous place, forcing us to reassess the value of all humans to one another….

     [It] not only embraces our genetic kinship with all life on Earth but also values our chemical kinship with any yet-to-be discovered life in the universe, as well as our atomic kinship with the universe itself.

In those last points—about the universe as a “lonely, hazardous place”  and about our chemical and atomic kinships to all of it, life included—Tyson raises what for many people are difficult connections to feel warmly about. Appreciating all the kinships that he mentions calls for a rare range of empathy and imagination. The astrophysicist finds his meanings in the physics of the cosmos. I find more meaning in the history of living things. I am more drawn to the wily skills that plants and animals use so they can survive than I am to the evolution of galaxies, though I recognize my distant kinship to them as well.

Perhaps such spiritual kinships were less prone to fragmenting back when deities whom everyone believed in seemed to provide the answers. Divine faces smoothed the way to a vision of a divinely managed cosmos with the human condition tucked in place. Today, Tyson and others fit together—rough edges and all—the matter-and-energy pieces of a more faceless and formidable one.