Under the Sea: The Immortal Jellyfish

Do you ever wish you could go back in time to when you were smaller and had absolutely no responsibilities? What would happen if you could hit the reset button every time adult life got a little too stressful? You could potentially live forever!

While humans are yet to figure out how to achieve immortality, here is a tiny jellyfish, only half the width of your thumbnail, that seems to do just that –

Turritopsis dohrnii is a hydrozoan that was first discovered accidentally, by two students – Sommer and Bavestrello in a laboratory. They had collected the specimen, mistaking it for another species (Turritopsis nutricula), and forgot about it in the rearing jar. The next time they checked it, they found a large number of newly settled polyps to be suspicious. Upon further study, they found that under stressful conditions, the mature medusa transforms back to their polyp stage. Initially observed in the Mediterranean sea, they are hitchhikers using ships ballast water, and other marine vessels and can be found in almost all parts of the world. In common jellyfish, the fertilized egg develops into a planula, which then transforms into a polyp that expels more medusae.

But in the case of the immortal jellyfish, when exposed to physical stress factors like starvation, reduction of salinity, temperature changes, and damage from forceps, the medusae curl back into their polyp over a span of 1-2 weeks. It can be compared in simpler terms, to a butterfly turning back into a caterpillar upon maturity. This discovery was revolutionary and initially termed impossible because of the sheer miraculousness of it all!

When the world first heard about this around 20 years ago, the media went into a frenzy because of its revolutionary nature. This process termed ‘cellular transdifferentiation’ may not be our answer to never-ending life but it may certainly help us live a little longer. We could understand better how to repair or regenerate damaged tissues and this in turn may cure diseases like Parkinson’s and cancer. This discovery could potentially change the fields of science and medicine and turn about the very way our lives function!

Source: http://www.science.org.au

The pioneers of this field may be Sommer and Bavestrello but Dr. Shin Kubota in Kyoto University, Japan is a revolutionary in this field with studies that show the animal can go back to its polyp stage almost 10 times over a span of 2 years. Dr. Kubota is so passionate about this animal because he believes they can hold the secrets of human life and perhaps even immortality. He holds the only captive population in the world and spends his mornings catching plankton for them while caring for and studying them the rest of the day. But because he is not so sure that humankind can handle the responsibility of such a precious dream, by night he himself transforms into a popular TV persona, donning a jellyfish cap and a lab coat, who writes and performs songs on this jellyfish to encourage man to live at peace with nature and value it – christening him “The Immortal Jellyfish Man”. One of his many dreams was to travel the seas of the world on a cruise ship, stopping at different points to collect specimens of marine life and at night, to go perform his awareness-creating songs at the karaoke.

There is a possibility of there being other creatures on this planet that hold the secret to living forever but so far, the immortal jellyfish is the only one close to it. There is, however, the obstacle to their survival in captivity. These jellyfish don’t usually thrive under laboratory conditions and as a result, it is difficult to rear and study them. But limiting research to only those creatures that are easy to culture causes us to lose out on those that could hold many revolutionary secrets in the field of science.

While we don’t fully know yet the molecular mechanism by which these creatures are able to completely reset their cells, there is reason to hope for a future where we may be able to live forever. But whether that is a good thing or not, is a whole other dilemma.

Think About It-

  • Why do jellyfish have tentacles?
  • Do jellyfish have a brain?
  • What should we do if we are stung by jellyfish?
  • What do jellyfish eat?
  • Are there any jellyfish at your local beach?

Published by LakesOfIndia

Lakes of India is an E.F.I initiative aimed at sensitizing the larger public on freshwater habitats across the country. A blog platform where one can read about lakes across India. You can become a guest blogger to write about a lake in your hometown and initiate an action to protect that lake.

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