Forever Jelly

Friday we talked about the world’s oldest organisms. Today, I can do you one better.

Turritopsis nutricula is a hydrozoan, very closely related to a sea jelly. Jellies and hydrozoans have two distinct stages to their life cycles. The jellyfish we all know and love is the mature, sexual medusa stage. But that jelly spent the first part of its life as a tiny, asexual polyp animal stuck to a rock, like a miniature anemone. That polyp grew into a strobila, grew stacks, like a Japanese pagoda, and the levels of those stacks eventually popped off and became baby medusas. But that strobila will continue living, popping off new jellyfish, until something licks it off its rock. So while an adult jellyfish has many cloned brother/sisters, it is not a clone of its strobila; it is its strobila. It’s the free-swimming extension of its strobila. The jellyfish is living in many different bodies, with two different forms, all over the world’s oceans, at the same time.

But I blow your mind digress. Turritopsis nutricula isn’t content to just live in several different bodies at once. It is unique, in that it can regress from its mature medusa stage to its larval strobila stage all by itself, and grow up all over again. And it can repeat this trick indefinitely. This means Turritopsis nutricula isn’t just long-living.

It’s potentially immortal.

What would we have to do to become immortal? It’s a question occultists, science fiction writers, and spiritual leaders have been asking since we developed an awareness of our inevitable deaths. Most of us write immortality off as an impossibility, going against the will of nature. But it’s not. At least one animal does it.

Enter The Methuselah Foundation, or, for those who can’t spell, simply The M Foundation. Since the failure of the alchemists to procure an immortality serum, it’s the largest push to find the fountain of youth in human history. This collection of scientists and philanthropists claim to work “to enable humans to live longer, better, and wiser, by defeating age-related disease and suffering.” But age isn’t just the cause of disease; in their minds, age is a disease. Death is a disease, and one that can be cured. What is age or death but a degradation of our cell structures, the collapse of the whole system under the strain of radiation and free radicals?

They might be right. But there’s the ethics to consider. Most people do not want to die, and nobody wants to end up in the nursing home. Living long and prospering is a biological imperative. But with humans already living longer than their natural span (about 40 years, for wild humans) and world population at 7 billion, how much time should we really be allowed to take up? And what do we lose in the process? If Turritopsis is any indication, you can’t achieve immortality by staying the same age, like a vampire. You have to regress, turn the hourglass of your life over before one of the chambers empties. You have to become a child and do it all over again. Sounds like fun, the first time. Sounds like it would get really old, the second or third time.

So. Would you rather get old once, or live your life over from childhood eternally?

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About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

4 responses to “Forever Jelly

  • Ernie Brill

    OBVIOUSLY, I have jellyfish capacities, having regressed many times into at least my fourth childhood.And who ever said anything about growing up? Sometimes it doesnt pan out that way.

  • Tatyana Brown

    I’m having a hard time with the way your defining a single living organism in this post. Why are you claiming that medusas produced by a single stroblia are extensions instead of clones? How do you define one living organism as compared to many?

    Don’t get me wrong, transdifferentiation is fucking cool. I think studying animals that can do it could be a nifty way to get around the ethical stickiness of stem cell research. It’s a long shot, but it’s still fascinating.

  • quantumbiologist

    The strobila is the larval stage of the medusa. It’s not different than the grub is to the fly… except that it can split itself into many flies. The sex has already happened; the strobila isn’t reproducing, it’s just maturing. So technically, any medusas who popped off the strobila aren’t brothers and sisters, they’re clones… or the same exact animal, if you want to think of it that way.

  • Heather

    I only want to live this once on this Earth. I like my life very much, but I think if I had a “do-over” I would stress myself out too much trying to do everything “right,” remembering (assuming I could) the choices I made in my last life…

    and also, being a child, while fun for a while, really would get old fast (no pun intended).

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