Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality?


After more than 4,000 years — almost since the dawn of recorded time, when Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh that the secret to immortality lay in a coral found on the ocean floor — man finally discovered eternal life in 1988. He found it, in fact, on the ocean floor. The discovery was made unwittingly by Christian Sommer, a German marine-biology student in his early 20s. He was spending the summer in Rapallo, a small city on the Italian Riviera, where exactly one century earlier Friedrich Nietzsche conceived “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”: “Everything goes, everything comes back; eternally rolls the wheel of being. Everything dies, everything blossoms again. . . .”

Sommer was conducting research on hydrozoans, small invertebrates that, depending on their stage in the life cycle, resemble either a jellyfish or a soft coral. Every morning, Sommer went snorkeling in the turquoise water off the cliffs of Portofino. He scanned the ocean floor for hydrozoans, gathering them with plankton nets. Among the hundreds of organisms he collected was a tiny, relatively obscure species known to biologists as Turritopsis dohrnii. Today it is more commonly known as the immortal jellyfish.

Sommer kept his hydrozoans in petri dishes and observed their reproduction habits. After several days he noticed that his Turritopsis dohrnii was behaving in a very peculiar manner, for which he could hypothesize no earthly 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.

Sommer was baffled by this development but didn’t immediately grasp its significance. (It was nearly a decade before the word “immortal” was first used to describe the species.) But several biologists in Genoa, fascinated by Sommer’s finding, continued to study the species, and in 1996 they published a paper called “Reversing the Life Cycle.” The scientists described how the species — at any stage of its development — could transform itself back to a polyp, the organism’s earliest stage of life, “thus escaping death and achieving potential immortality.” This finding appeared to debunk the most fundamental law of the natural world — you are born, and then you die.

Written By: Nathaniel Rich
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  1. ‘And their immortality is, to a certain degree, a question of semantics.
    “That word ‘immortal’ is distracting,” says James Carlton, the professor
    of marine sciences at Williams. “If by ‘immortal’ you mean passing on
    your genes, then yes, it’s immortal. But those are not the same cells
    anymore. The cells are immortal, but not necessarily the organism
    itself.” To complete the Benjamin Button analogy, imagine the man, after
    returning to a fetus, being born again. The cells would be recycled,
    but the old Benjamin would be gone; in his place would be a different
    man with a new brain, a new heart, a new body. He would be a clone.’ 

    Not sure how different this is from the ordinary aging process.

  2.   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.

    I will be interesting to see how many times this organism can regenerate.

    There is an interesting analogy in plants,  where mature trees are cut down to allow new growth from the stumps as a coppiced woodland.…. – The new-growth seems to be re-set as juveniles which can regrow into new mature trees over and over again.

    Another arboreal example is commercial apple varieties, where immature young trees are produced vegetatively on a regular basis, from grafted cuttings.

  3. If immortality is simply living for a very long time then I guess this comes close. If immortality is living for a very long time as a specific person with memories and an identity then I suspect the jelly has failed. If we, as humans, were to consume our bodies until we were nothing but an embryo, I doubt we would grow up to be the same person we were prior. Who cares for immortality if you have no idea who you once were. Again, the headline sucks and is missleading.

  4. Perhaps religions are on to something.  Think like a jelly fish and you get to be immortal

  5. There are “immortal” human cells.  Unfortunately there is a catch!


    A HeLa cell /ˈhiːlɑː/, also Hela or hela cell, is a cell type in an immortal cell line used in scientific research. It is the oldest and most commonly used human cell line –

  6. Nothing on this earth can be immortal since we know our sun will one day evolve into a red giant. What people tend to mean by immortality is really invincibility, imo. Jellyfish aren’t good in that department. 


  7. Sample
    Nothing on this earth can be immortal since we know our sun will one day evolve into a red giant

    Assuming that Earth-life remains confined to the Solar System!

  8. I will be interested to see how many times this organism can regenerate

    So would I. The article mentions that he studied one colony for 2 years between 2009 and 2011: It regenerated 10 times. But now I can’t find anything on what has happened since. I can’t imagine him flushing them away when they hit double figures.

    As a layman, it’s incredible to me that something so amazing is only being studied by one man without any staff. All the “immortality” hype aside, surely there’s a chance that it could teach us something. As to what that might be, I don’t have a clue. But then many great scientific discoveries have been made when looking for something else or by scientists “playing”. And a creature that can do what no other can, has to be a contender for an amazing discovery, doesn’t it?

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