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.

 

 

Seasons and Heartbeats

Seasons and Heartbeats

Age: 68. These days the seasons are less like a perfume to me and more like a clock.

When I was young, autumns were my favorite season—painfully romantic, full of the future, life-enhancing and lonely at the same time. The smoke in the air and the cold freshness made me want to run around, run anywhere. I loved playing football because it required running around fast and falling on the ground, a favorite activity of boys (and one which I think remains the basic appeal of the sport).

Each season had its flavor and power. Winter’s were perhaps the mildest—cozy, private, a little claustrophobic. Spring could be “the cruelest month”—I think it depended on how my love life was going—but the renewal everywhere made me lightly happy. Summer brought its sex appeal, but the absence of school was a real emptiness. I couldn’t live up to summer’s fullness and high expectations. When the Beach Boys sang “There ain’t no cure for the summertime blues,” I was relieved to know they felt that way too.

rhythm of seasons

The rhythm of the seasons… (stepupliving.blogspot.com)

These days, decades later, either my senses are declining or sheer repetition has taken the intensity out of the seasons, or both. Though autumn is still my favorite and summer still less than idyllic, now I’m more caught up in watching the plants grow, bloom, and fade. I’m in awe not so much of the seasons themselves but of the inescapability of the changes, the daylight lengthening or shrinking, the air turning warmer or cooler. Lovely as it all is, it’s the relentlessness of the cycle that gets to me now.

Sometimes I think, one less summer left, one less autumn to go.

heart beat

 …and the heart (medicineworld.org)

The other rhythm I’m aware of these days is my heart’s. It has been irregular for periods, enough so that I no longer take it for granted when it’s regular. As this autumn was coming in, it struck me that the seasons also are a heartbeat. My heart pumps in, pumps out, pumps in, while the seasons pump the life of the planet, year in, year out. The globe’s temperature, moisture, and light pass by in a rotation that brings forth sprouting, blooming, fading, dormancy, sprouting—the cardiac coordination between the planet and its life.

My heart will run down—is running down—my seasons will run down and run out, but my inclusion in the endless beat of the seasons all these years—the inclusion of every living thing in the rhythm that carries us along—has been a taste of immortality.