The idea of living forever has always fascinated humans, with religions across time exploring ways to achieve it. Scientists have explored many different avenues towards eternal life, from the planets in our solar system and cryogenics on Earth. But what if there was an easier way out? A jellyfish may hold this secret behind its beautiful bioluminescent cloak - in case they ever get into trouble with what's happening on Earth.
Jellyfish are often thought of as "medusas,"; creatures that have the second stage in their life cycle. They spend this phase drifting around with trailing tentacles, looking just like an opaque balloon on floats!
There’s an unusual jellyfish species, Turritopsis dohrnii, which can seemingly escape from their deaths altogether. Despite only being three millimeters in diameter on average, these tiny invertebrates can roll back their biological clock, transforming from medusae back into the polyp stage when injured or starving to death - meaning it could potentially live forever!
A lot of people think that it's impossible for an animal like this, but if you take into account its ability to escape death when necessary, then even though we may not know all the exact details behind how these jellies do it, it seems possible after all. There's no stopping you if your life goal was survival through regeneration like theirs!
The age of immortal jellyfish
The age of the immortal jellyfish is a bit more complicated than it seems, but it can live potentially forever. It's been floating through oceans long before the dinosaurs went extinct 66 million years ago and can live to see another 66 or so!
However, while it's possible that these jellyfish are capable of storing information in their DNA, it will never be able to prove this given they have only been studied since the early 1980s. A few decades' worths of data are all that's available.
A world where immortality is possible, the real question isn't if we will eventually see an immortal jellyfish - it's when. And while they have been around for centuries and could conceivably age in reverse, many factors are worth considering, including being easily killed by predators such as various fish or sharks.
To understand how the immortal jellyfish is able to hack its lifecycle, you first need an understanding of what happens in a normal one.
Immortal jellyfish live forever
The process isn't too hard, but some things make it seem stranger than reality. The life cycle of immortal jellyfish consists of five stages:
Life begins when medusa or adult jellyfish spawn eggs and sperm into the water, which join up to create a fertilized egg.
The fertilized egg develops into a planula, a tiny cigar-shaped larva, or a microscopic worm that can swim about freely.
The planula swims down, looking for a rock or substrate to attach itself to, where it metamorphosizes into a polyp. It develops a digestive system and is able to feed itself. And, when the conditions are suitable, the polyp reproduces asexually into its identical clones that form a colony that can cover an entire boat dock in a few days.
After forming new muscles and nerves, a section of the polyp (either original or clone) becomes an ephyra. This creature can swim independently with feeding abilities that allow them to grow in size indefinitely.
Medusa is a fully-grown adult jellyfish, which can reproduce sexually with another jellyfish and dies shortly afterward.
Jellyfish life is full of surprises, but the end - is something you never see coming. The tiny Turritopsis dohrnii is an immortal jellyfish that can slip back and forth between an adult or a cyst, depending on its environment. If starved or injured, it will sink to the ocean floor and become little blobs of tissue called cysts; but if everything goes well in this world (and for some reason, it’s not dead yet), then the body will start turning into that beautiful animal again-a polyp. This remarkable ability is known as transdifferentiation.
A cell's ability to differentiate or change its identity is what makes it special. It can turn into another type of (completely different) specialized adult cells, and this phenomenon goes by the name "cellular transdifferentiation." says Dr. Maria Pia, a researcher from Texas A&M University and head of The Real Immortal Jellyfish research project.
It takes two or three days for an adult's cells to disintegrate in a cyst - becomes a polyp, attaches itself to the surface, and then, most importantly, integrates back into the whole organism all over again.
To date, around five species of jellyfish have been discovered that can rejuvenate from their own ashes. Scientists are still scratching their heads over the exact mechanism behind transdifferentiation and jellyfish mortality. Some scientists think it will likely be found in immortal jellyfish genes, which turn on or off to dictate the course of escaping death and regeneration.
It could happen! A few jelly genes, and we'll all be like Doctor Who, regenerating whenever our weariness gets too much.
Could humans become immortal like jellyfish - Ever?
There comes a moment in everyone’s life when they have pondered on the desire to be immortal. But after reading the above-mentioned things about jellyfish, the desire might have been multiplied by 10. But if you are wondering, can you live forever just like they have?
Well, to give you a simple answer, no. We humans cannot live forever. The reason why jellyfish enjoy immortality is that they have an active piRNA pathway. Humans also have the said pathway, but like jellyfish, we cannot activate this pathway. Because activating this pathway can make the cell cancerous. But you do not have to give up hope as researchers are working very hard in this field.
The research process is a bit slow, but it is steady. We are yet to unfold the mystery of why humans age. By understanding the mechanism of jellyfish closely, we can reach the base of the way things are the way they are, and then we can one day successfully apply the methods of cellular regeneration and tissue culture to human beings. All this can change the way we have known life. One day….fingers crossed!
Where do immortal jellyfish live?
Although the exact story of origin and habitat of most of these immortal sea creatures is still under wraps, in these current times, they are easily and mostly found in tropical regions all around the globe-an ode to anthropogenic activities.
According to the research, due to the ballast water that is usually hulled by ships so that they can steady their pace, these jellyfishes are cornered in the tropics.
Scientists call this effect “silent invasion”, and yes, tropical areas are difficult to comprehend, but when it comes to jellyfish, they are one adorable candidate for crummy pets.
The studies suggest that all the jellyfish that are found in the Atlantic, Japan, Brazil, California all have identical genes and thus identical habits; this is a sign of humans interfering with their habitats. Because under natural distributions, the genes wouldn’t be so identical.
Get yourself and enjoy the benefits of an aquatic pet that will spend an eternity metamorphosing rather than just uselessly floating around. From being highly sensitive to dependence on a fish egg diet, the real paradox that these sea creatures face is that keeping them alive is a hard nut to crack!
Nida Riaz is a freelance blogger based in Pakistan. She started writing about her passion for the environment when the world came to a stop in early 2020.