How to live for ever: lessons from a jellyfish

The Immortal Jellyfish

Warm currents pick up a nameless form in the dark. The waters slide upward and tug the creature, drawing it to the surface. It stirs; rudimentary muscles twitch and contract. Colourless tentacles drift below an ethereal body and taste the salinity that surrounds it, caressing the warmth with deadly intent. An immortal predator, it hunts the oceans, searching for prey. As the sun broaches the horizon and honey bands of light, thick with the promise of tropical heat, lay themselves on the ocean the creature reaches the surface. Tentacles splayed, reaching, it waits with patience. And something approaches.

It hovers in the water column. Sun drenches it now, warming and bringing a myriad of life to the surface. Long, clear arms touch something in the murk. The touch comes again. Now an explosion occurs; the fastest process in the animal world. An evolutionary bomb. Tiny harpoons fire outward from coiled nests. Poisonous and sharper than the finest razor they detonate. A small fish, or perhaps crustacean, dies quickly but painfully in the soft arms of the creature. Then, slowly, it is reeled in and dragged toward the mouth of the monster. It becomes a passing meal for an undying beast.

Yet everything that lives must die. The sentiment, the thought and the knowledge are as old as the idea of life itself. Death and taxes they say; inevitable. Yet not all things age; of course they can die, in violence or in the rage of nature, but they do not feel the kiss of time. Immortality is theirs. Colonial animals that pass on their genes en mass and in full can avoid death in a certain sense. Bacteria and cancers can divide endlessly, living on in their progeny, passing their cloned essence from daughter to daughter, daughter to daughter forever. Complex proteins lengthen their telomeres and cheat the fate, cellular death, which all other cells in the history of life have felt. But others still, rare and highly specialised, survive in an indefinite temporal standstill, never aging. Transdifferentiation is the process by which a certain species maintains its tenuous but never ending grip on life. This process stops time by reversing the adult to an immature stage after reproduction has occurred. Polyp to medusa and full circle, back to polyp it lives on. The immortal jellyfish, Turritopsis nutricula, is the largest animal on this watery planet that is biologically immortality. It quite literally lives forever.

It boggles the mind to think that a creature can survive outside the realms of time. It breaks the heart that we, despite our supposed vast intelligence, will be outlived by a small, clear, watery creature. Blind and unable to control its journey a small but awesome blob will, barring accident, outlive even our great, great grandchildren.


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