MISSOULA — Think of the oldest living thing on the planet. Is it an elephant? Maybe a sea turtle? How about a giant redwood tree?
It turns out there is a creature that has achieved immortality — and it's smaller than your fingernail.
Tales of the fountain of youth have been around for centuries with one of the first accounts from a Greek historian in the fifth century BC. But the true legend may be deep beneath the waves.
From the Greenland shark to elephants, even the mightiest creatures succumb to the relentless march of time. But amidst this cycle of life and death, there exists a truly extraordinary creature — the one and only biologically immortal animal.
Turritopsis dohrnii — otherwise known as the immortal jellyfish — is a tiny creature smaller than the nail on your pinky finger. It possesses an extraordinary ability to revert its cells back to their earliest form, essentially resetting its life cycle.
This phenomenon, known as transdifferentiation, allows the jellyfish to transform its mature cells back into immature ones, effectively restarting its development.
The life cycle of the immortal jellyfish begins as a tiny larvae floating in the open ocean, eventually settling on the ocean floor and transforming into a polyp. From there, multiple young bud off from the polyp and turn into medusae (or adult) — what we typically identify as a jellyfish.
When faced with environmental stress or aging, the Turritopsis dohrnii undergoes an astonishing transformation. The transdifferentiation process is triggered when the jellyfish encounters adverse conditions, such as injury or starvation.
It activates a series of genetic switches, initiating the reversal of its cells. As the cells transform, the jellyfish goes back to its polyp stage, starting the life cycle anew. It's as if time itself is rewound.
What makes the immortal jellyfish truly unique is its ability to repeat this cycle indefinitely. Its cellular rejuvenation process grants it virtual immortality.
But nature has a way of balancing things out and this tiny jellyfish is easily eaten by predators like sharks and turtles. So, you don’t have to worry about the world being taken over by millions of jellyfish.
While the fabled fountain of youth may elude us for now, the immortal jellyfish holds within its fragile frame the potential for astonishing breakthroughs in human health and longevity research.
By unraveling the secrets of transdifferentiation, we could gain insights into cellular regeneration and its implications for combating age-related diseases.
While the Turritopsis dohrnii's ability to be biologically immortal captivates our imagination, it also raises profound questions about the nature of life and the possibilities that lie within the realms of science.
It is a reminder that life's greatest surprises can be found in the unlikeliest of places.