The Immortal Jellyfish

Slipping Through the Nets of Mortality

The quest to outwit death has always captivated humanity. From religious rituals to cosmic alignments, cryogenics, and even fabled springs of eternal life, our species has explored countless paths to immortality. Yet, the answer may have been drifting in the ocean currents all along: a small, seemingly unremarkable jellyfish named Turritopsis dohrnii, also known as the “immortal” jellyfish.

Turritopsis dohrnii’s lifecycle, like that of other jellyfish, starts as a tiny, fertilized egg. This egg develops into a larva called a planula, which twirls through the sea, seeking a spot to anchor. Securing itself, it transforms into a polyp, akin to a minuscule sea anemone. These polyps have the remarkable ability to clone themselves, leading to the rapid formation of expansive colonies that can envelop entire boat docks in mere days. Some polyps even form large, bush-like structures.

As time passes, these polyps change, budding into baby jellyfish, which will grow into the adult form, the medusa, within weeks. Adult Turritopsis dohrnii, barely larger than a fingernail at 4.5 mm (0.18 in) across, displays a vivid red stomach at the heart of its translucent bell, fringed by up to 90 delicate white tentacles.

Turritopsis dohrnii

Turritopsis dohrnii

The intrigue deepens if the adult jellyfish is injured or starving; instead of dying, its umbrella-shaped bell and tentacles decay, and it reverts to its polyp stage, essentially turning back its biological clock to youth. It can then grow up all over again, creating new medusae that are genetically identical to the original, entering a potentially endless loop of rebirth.

This ability is powered by transdifferentiation, a rare and extraordinary biological process where the jellyfish’s specialized adult cells are reprogrammed into the versatile cells of a polyp. Through this cellular metamorphosis, the jellyfish redefines its form, embracing an entirely new anatomical design.

Transdifferentiation not only explains the physical process but also poses a philosophical puzzle about the essence of mortality. Recent studies have found genetically identical Turritopsis dohrnii across the globe, prompting us to question: If an organism consistently renews its cells, does it remain the same being? Biologically, if the genetic code persists, this might be sufficient to claim victory over death.

Aurelia aurita

Aurelia aurita

The phenomenon of seemingly a miraculous rise from the dead extends beyond the “immortal” jellyfish. In 2011, a marine biology student in China observed a deceased moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita) giving rise to a new polyp. This process of rebirth has now been identified in about five jellyfish species.

As of now, no established link exists between jellyfish regeneration and human longevity, yet the future may still hold breakthroughs. Imagine a time when integrating jellyfish DNA into our own to enhance regeneration and repair becomes achievable. Such developments could herald a new era in medicine, potentially enabling us to rejuvenate our bodies in ways currently beyond our wildest dreams.

Words of wisdom

“It isn’t what you have or who you are or where you are or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about it.” ―Dale Carnegie

“Just one small positive thought in the morning can change your whole day.” —Dalai Lama

“I’d like to live as a poor man with lots of money.” ―Pablo Picasso

“It is never too late to be what you might have been.” — George Eliot


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