Monday, December 17, 2012

Imortality Lessons from Turritopsis Dohrnii

Shamelessly cribbed from The New York Times.
An adult turritopsis dohrnii, if there is such a thing.

Hey kids, it's freaky Science Monday here at The Digital Notebook!

Today, we're looking at a little thing called immortality, mankind's eternal search for eternal life.

No big deal right?

So it turns out, it exists and guess what? For scientists it was "no big deal."

Turns out, they've known about it since 1996.

So far, it is not a phenomenon seen in humans, but hey, if bell-bottom jeans can come back, anything is possible.

Where it has been found is where you might expect, in the place where all life on earth originated.

The Garden of Eden, a great story, but NOT where life began.
No, NOT the Garden of Eden. The ocean.

And, in yet another irony of a universe with a particularly twisted sense of humor, it is enjoyed by a creature that is, to put it in scientific terms, too stupid to know how good it has it.

As you may have guessed by puzzling over the headline, the creature is called Turritopsis dohrnii.

It is, as you might have guessed from the photo shamelessly stolen from The New York times,  either a coral like polyp or a jellyfish, depending on which stage of its eternal life it fails to be enjoying.

It is a conceit of the self-conscious I suppose to believe that only those of us who are self-aware could fully appreciate the knowledge that we will live forever.

For all we know, the collection of cells that comprises Turritopsis dohrnii is dancing for joy every day as it drifts eternally through the ocean.

Personally, I've never really understood those who want to live forever. 

Maybe its because, at 47, I'm old enough to be tired a lot, but not so close to the end that I crave more time. 

But I'm of the school of thought that our limits are what defines us.

Any Star Trek fan worth his salt knew Kirk had his eye on this

lovely lady from the start. Who cares is she's a robot? She's a babe.
Consider (GEEK Alert!) the Star Trek episode "Requiem for Methuselah" in which the intrepid Captain Kirk and crew discover a human being named Flint who turns out to be 6,000 years old.

(What philosophical question did that show NOT address I wonder?)

Anyhow, as usual, the show devolves into a discussion about the necessity of emotions Flint's lonely because he outlives everyone, go figure) and why the pretty girl robot he constructed to be immortal alongside Flint should instead have a one-night stand with Kirk.

But it does touch on one aspect of immortality which is a recurring theme in discussions of the topic. With the exception of those rambunctious Greek gods, almost all memes about immortality end up with a moral lesson about them being unhappy for one reason or another.

Would you want to spend

eternity as this guy?
Sure, with infinite time comes infinite possibilities. You literally (and I am using that word correctly grammar Nazis) all the time in the world to perfect your painting; your engineering skills; to learn 50 languages; finally map out the plot of "Lost," you name it.

But with a limited life span, its the choices we make about how to spend that time that define us -- or at least that's how its supposed to go.

Maybe that's just the monster rationalization we muster to comfort ourselves about the fact that we're all going to die.

There are also the various modes of immortality to consider.

Do you really want to live in a 200-year-old body, with all its inherent physical and mental limitations?

Don't leave that portrait laying around Dorian.
There's Dorian Grey's solution, have a portrait of you take the hit while you run around forever in your prime. (That one sounds like the best method to me).

Or then there's the Fountain of Youth/Benjamin Buttons method. To start off old and then get younger.

I will confess to having a fondness for the idea of being a young man armed with a lifetime of experience.

But who's to say you would get that option?

Anyway, it's obviously all speculation since,with the exception of Turritopsis dohrnii, we're all going to die.

(If you want to get a weird look form someone, do what I sometimes do and interrupt them when they say "IF you die" and say "you mean WHEN.")

How is it that THIS guy is now being used to sell perfume?
As it turns out, this jellyfish/polyp is often called the "Benjamin Buttons Jellyfish" because that's what it does, according to the article in The New York Times Magazine that got this whole post started.

In the 1996 a paper called “Reversing the Life Cycle," which first described this behavior, "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.'" Nathaniel Rich wrote in his article.

Of course, like Tolkien's immortal elves, they can still be killed or, in Turritopsis dohrnii's case, eaten (which tends to happen a lot in the ocean I'm told), but if it survives an attack, chances are it will continue on forever.

Rich wrote: "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 human stem cells.)"

Wouldn't we all, NFL linemen in particular, love to be able to regenerate ourselves if we get injured or stressed?

But you can forget it folks. 

Even the pharmaceutical industry seems to be ignoring this jellyfish, so the miracle Elixir of Life does not loom in our future anytime soon.

So it seems we must continue to reconcile ourselves to "Death at a Funeral."


  1. "Even the pharmaceutical industry seems to be ignoring this jellyfish, so the miracle Elixir of Life does not loom in our future anytime soon."

    You only assume this to be true. I sincerely doubt industry or government is ignoring it. They simply haven't yet figured out how to duplicate it or control it. All things in time.

    1. Joe......
      Do you know something I don't know?.......

  2. I know only that if somebody thinks they can profit by, or otherwise win with, this science ... they will. Government agencies seem the most likely and have the deepest pockets. Biopharmeceutical firms run a close second. When I worked as associate editor of a now defunct technology magazine that focused on investment angel start-ups for biopharms, I learned that together those two can pretty much do anything.