The "immortal jellyfish" can transform itself back into a polyp and begin life anew.
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.
One of the paper’s authors, Ferdinando Boero, likened the Turritopsis to a butterfly that, instead of dying, turns back into a caterpillar. Another metaphor is a chicken that transforms into an egg, which gives birth to another chicken. The anthropomorphic analogy is that of an old man who grows younger and younger until he is again a fetus. For this reason Turritopsis dohrnii is often referred to as the Benjamin Button jellyfish.
We now know, for instance, that the rejuvenation of Turritopsis dohrnii and some other members of the genus is caused by environmental stress or physical assault. We know that, during rejuvenation, it undergoes cellular transdifferentiation, an unusual process by which one type of cell is converted into another — a skin cell into a nerve cell, for instance. (The same process occurs in humanstem cells.) We also know that, in recent decades, the immortal jellyfish has rapidly spread throughout the world’s oceans in what Maria Pia Miglietta, a biology professor at Notre Dame, calls “a silent invasion.” The jellyfish has been “hitchhiking” on cargo ships that use seawater for ballast. Turritopsis has now been observed not only in the Mediterranean but also off the coasts of Panama, Spain, Florida and Japan. The jellyfish seems able to survive, and proliferate, in every ocean in the world. It is possible to imagine a distant future in which most other species of life are extinct but the ocean will consist overwhelmingly of immortal jellyfish, a great gelatin consciousness everlasting....
The genus, it turns out, is extraordinarily difficult to culture in a laboratory. It requires close attention and an enormous amount of repetitive, tedious labor; even then, it is under only certain favorable conditions, most of which are still unknown to biologists, that a Turritopsis will produce offspring.
In fact there is just one scientist who has been culturing Turritopsis polyps in his lab consistently. He works alone, without major financing or a staff, in a cramped office in Shirahama, a sleepy beach town in Wakayama Prefecture, Japan, four hours south of Kyoto. The scientist’s name is Shin Kubota, and he is, for the time being, our best chance for understanding this unique strand of biological immortality....
The world’s only captive population of immortal jellyfish lives in petri dishes arrayed haphazardly on several shelves of a small refrigerator in Kubota’s office. Like most hydrozoans, Turritopsis passes through two main stages of life, polyp and medusa. A polyp resembles a sprig of dill, with spindly stalks that branch and fork and terminate in buds. When these buds swell, they sprout not flowers but medusas. A medusa has a bell-shaped dome and dangling tentacles. Any layperson would identify it as a jellyfish, though it is not the kind you see at the beach. Those belong to a different taxonomic group, Scyphozoa, and tend to spend most of their lives as jellyfish; hydrozoans have briefer medusa phases. An adult medusa produces eggs or sperm, which combine to create larvae that form new polyps. In other hydroid species, the medusa dies after it spawns. A Turritopsis medusa, however, sinks 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. The stolons lengthen and become a polyp. The new polyp produces new medusas, and the process begins again.
Kubota estimates that his menagerie contains at least 100 specimens, about 3 to a petri dish. “They are very tiny,” Kubota, the proud papa, said. “Very cute.” It is cute, the immortal jellyfish. An adult medusa is about the size of a trimmed pinkie fingernail. It trails scores of hairlike tentacles. Medusas found in cooler waters have a bright scarlet bell, but more commonly the medusa is translucent white, its contours so fine that under a microscope it looks like a line drawing. It spends most of its time floating languidly in the water. It’s in no rush...“The mystery of life is not concealed in the higher animals,” Kubota told me. “It is concealed in the root. And at the root of the Tree of Life is the jellyfish.” (more)