Jellyfish and Sea Urchins Know Things That We Don’t About Disease Resistance and Longevity

In 1988 a young German Marine-Biologist captured and began observing a fairly rare marine creature known to biologists as Turritopsis dohrnii.  The creature is now commonly referred to as The Immortal Jellyfish.  After several days he noticed that his Turritopsis dohrnii was behaving in a very peculiar manner, for which he could imagine no explanation. Plainly speaking, it refused to die. It appeared to age in reverse, growing younger and younger until it reached its earliest stage of development, at which point it began its life cycle anew.

Here’s how NY Times writer Nathaniel Rich explains the process:

Like most hydrozoans, Turritopsis passes through two main stages of life, polyp and medusa.  A polyp resembles a sprig of dill, with spindly stalks that branch and fork and terminate in buds. When these buds swell, they sprout not flowers but medusas. A medusa has a bell-shaped dome and dangling tentacles. Any layperson would identify it as a jellyfish, though it is not the kind you see at the beach. Those belong to a different taxonomic group, Scyphozoa, and tend to spend most of their lives as jellyfish; hydrozoans have briefer medusa phases. An adult medusa produces eggs or sperm, which combine to create larvae that form new polyps. In other hydroid species, the medusa dies after it spawns. A Turritopsis medusa, however, sinks to the bottom of the ocean floor, where its body folds in on itself — assuming the jellyfish equivalent of the fetal position. The bell reabsorbs the tentacles, and then it degenerates further until it becomes a gelatinous blob. Over the course of several days, this blob forms an outer shell. Next it shoots out stolons, which resemble roots. The stolons lengthen and become a polyp. The new polyp produces new medusas, and the process begins again.

The Immortal Jellyfish.

 All this, of course, flies in the face of our most basic assumption about our world:  “first you are born, then you die.” The jellyfish, though, acts like a chicken that can turn back into and egg which hatches and grows again into a chicken which then turns back into an egg, and so on.

Although there is strong reason to believe that the simple creatures of the sea hold secrets that teach of immortality and the cure of cancer, there seems to be little will to study them.  For example, cancer funding, which is high dollar business,  is directed toward the study of actual cancers and drugs that can be used to make money. “Venture capitalists” do not want to open their pockets on long-shot studies of jellyfish.  There is also the problem that there are so few experts in hydrozoans.  Few want to make a career of studying jellyfish when there are sexier creatures to be examined.  It is also a very difficult research area because hydrozoans don’t like laboratory life and are tedious to maintain as research animals.

That doesn’t erase the fact that we may be looking in the wrong places.  One scientist says that to learn about life we need to look at the roots rather than the tree.  The simple creatures of the ocean have much to teach us.

“Immortality might be much more common than we think,” one researcher says.  “There are sponges out there that we know have been there for decades. Sea-urchin larvae are able to regenerate and continuously give rise to new adults.” He continued: “This might be a general feature of these animals. They never really die.”

For the full, fascinating story of the immortal jellyfish, you should read the  full article from the NY Times.