Delicate, graceful, otherworldly; jellyfish are known for their breathtaking beauty, and, of course, their painful sting. These gelatinous invertebrates have been floating in our oceans since the beginning of life itself, surviving apocalypses that wiped countless other species off the face of the Earth.
Millions of years later, they remain unchanged, free to drift the salty seas and amaze their viewers, possibly stinging those who get too close. Although there are many jellyfish that do not have a harmful sting, only one species is able to take its gift of survival to the next level; by hitting its own reset button.
The life cycle
First discovered in the Mediterranean Sea in the 1880’s, Turritopsis dohrnii is a small jellyfish with a bright-red stomach in its transparent bell and ninety tentacles, growing to only about 4.5mm (0.18 inches); no bigger than a pinky nail.
The jellyfish starts life as a planula (larva) as all jellyfish do, swimming in the water before landing on the sea bed to transform into a colony of polyps. From the colony, tinier forms of identical medusae (jellyfish) are released, growing into adults in a few weeks.
What makes this minute jellyfish so special? Turritopsis dohrnii possesses an amazing ability no other known animal can boast.
They are able to perform a rare process called transdifferentiation, which has caught the attention of scientists for its medical potential.
When the jellyfish are threatened with death, they are able to revert back to polyp form to begin the birth cycle anew. The new polyp colony will be able to spawn new medusae that share their genetics with the injured adult. Because of this incredible ability to respawn into new life, Turritopsis dohrnii has also come to be known as “the immortal jellyfish.”
In transdifferentiation, a single specialized adult cell can transform into a completely different cell, providing a methodical way to recycle cells. With this process, scientists hope to replicate the process to replace damaged human cells riddled with disease; especially cancer.
Not only is the “immortal jellyfish” able to survive to the extreme, it is also thriving rapidly as an aggressive invader. Scientists have found out that, like many marine species, the jellyfish often find themselves taking a ride underneath the ballasts of passing ships, whereby they are transported around the world.
Since trip survival is no trouble for these tenacious sea creatures, researchers have been able to identify different individuals of Turritopsis dohrnii sharing the same genetics as others from across the oceans.
The incredible survivability of this tiny jellyfish has mystified researchers about the nature of its mortality. If it is possible to replicate the process to replace cells, could an individual remain the same eternally? They believe that the genes are the same, and that might be enough to reach a breakthrough.
Immortality has long been sought after by humans, so naturally this remarkable ability to evade death is of great interest to scientists. Yet there must be a reason that this capability was only given to the lowliest of creatures. Was it so that we could exploit it, create super-humans, and fully dominate the world, or was it rather for us to marvel at the ingenious complexity of nature and aspire to be more worthy of this life that we were given.
When exploring these things, it is important to remember that there is a natural balance in this world. Be it life and death, or good and bad, wherever there is gain, there will be loss. Pushing the envelope for our natural lifespan may bring unforetold misery as well.