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Environment & Science

Does the immortal jellyfish hold the key to everlasting life?

Turritopsis nutricula, otherwise known as the immortal jellyfish.
Turritopsis nutricula, otherwise known as the immortal jellyfish.
World Register of Marine Species

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Humans have long been obsessed with the idea of immortality, but forget about super fruits with antioxidants or a magic Fountain of Youth. Consider instead, the humble jellyfish.

A recent New York Times story headlined "Can A Jellyfish Unlock The Secret Of Immortality?" has shed light on a species of jellyfish known as "The Benjamin Button of the animal kingdom." Turritopsis dohrnii, or the immortal jellyfish, has the unique ability to regenerate itself.

Scientists studying the creature noticed that it "refused to die," and appeared to reverse in age until it reached its earliest stage of development. Then the jellyfish would emerge again and start the cycle all over again. 

Pat Krug, a marine biologist at Cal State L.A. joins the show to explain more about how the jellyfish cheats death and whether or not it could prove the key to life ever after.

Interview Highlights:

Technically speaking, is this creature really a jellyfish?
It's a cousin of the animal that you picture when you think of jellyfish, but the actual jelly stage is much shorter than what you think when you think of an actual jellyfish.”

Can you explain what ‘jelly stage’ means in terms of the life cycle?
"When you think of a jellyfish you picture a pulsing bell with the tentacles, this is the adult stage in the life cycle of that animal. But there are other stages. The medusa, or the swimming jelly stage is the adult stage that gets to have sex, and then embryo develops into tiny swimming larvae that goes to the bottom, glues itself to a rock, and grows up into a polyp. It’s like a miniature sea anemone, like what Nemo and his dad lived in. These tiny little polyps don’t get to have sex, but they can clone themselves. So it develops a little stack of pancakes and each pancake will pop off and swim away and that is the jelly stage.”

Is the “Benjamin Button” analogy of reversing its age an accurate depiction for this jellyfish species?
"It doesn't really go in reverse like Benjamin Button, it more skips ahead. Normally an adult jellyfish has reproduced a few times, is getting on in years, it starts to starve or the water gets too hot, it has done its part and dies. In this species, when the jelly gets really stressed out, it collapses to the bottom and melts. But instead of dying it reorganizes its tissues and forms a new little polyp. Its almost like it skips its having sex part and goes straight to the next bit in the life cycle and then becomes a new polyp.”

Is this anything like a lizard and its ability to shed its tail and grow a new one?
"A lot of animals have these incredible powers of regeneration, but I can’t think of another animal that is capable of melting itself down and starting over again, not just regrow another body part, but completely reform itself and start anew. It means that the cells of this animal are able to basically un train themselves to do a particular, job, muscle cell, nerve cell, skin cell, and go back to being a stem cell. They then can reorganize themselves and form a whole different body, and then resume their life.”

Do you think that research on this jellyfish will actually yield anything that can be helpful to scientists in terms of human medicine?
"Whenever you have an animal that is capable of doing something unique it has a potential to give us some really novel insights into basic processes. Biochemical engineers in the past few years have made some huge progress in learning how to take an adult cell from a human and deprogram it so it can become like an adult stem cell and then have the flexibility to become like the cells around it are.  The advantage there is lets say you have a damaged spinal chord, well if you can un-specialize some of a person’s cells and inject them into that spinal chord they can pick up hints from the cells around them  and develop into new nerve cells and hopefully be able to repair the damage. That’s sort of the hope of working with adult stem cells. And it sidesteps the complications of working with embryonic stem cells. Learning how to take adult cells and get them back to the early stage where they can develop into anything is a significant goal of what we want to be able to achieve. Its something that this humble little jelly has as a built in feature of its life cycle. Things get gross around it, it melts down and rebuilds itself from scratch. So I think there is definitely the potential that we could learn some basic things that we could better apply to our own technology for human medicine.”