Fountain of Youth: The Immortal Jellyfish Spans Oceans

The concept of immortality has long captivated man. The novel idea of starting-over, beginning anew, and wiping the slate clean for eternity has become the obsession of scientists and the inspiration for countless beauty campaigns. Novels, plays, and films imagine the outcome of attaining immortality. But for the Turritopsis dohrnii jellyfish species, the notion of true rejuvenation isn’t unattainable—it’s routine.

Most jellyfish have a lifespan of hours or months, but Turritopsis dohrnii, dubbed the “immortal jellyfish,” breaks the norm. In many ways, Turritopsis dohrnii are similar to most jellyfish. They have the same umbrella shaped body and flowing tentacles. They grow from polyps, asexually reproduce to form many jellyfish and sexually reproduce at maturity. As the lifecycle ends there for most jellyfish species, for Turritopsis dohrnii, it has only begun. When a Turritopsis dohrnii is deprived of ample nutrition or physically injured, the animal becomes, simply, a blob. The damaged jellyfish attaches its fragile body to a stable object and its cells revert to their juvenile stage. The process of transdifferentiation allows cells to be used for different functions than they previously served as the animal rebuilds itself. The jellyfish goes back to its polyp stage and then grows into its full mature stage again. This process repeats as needed for survival.  

While some species of salamanders can grow new limbs (arms, legs, tails) after one has been amputated, these jellyfish are the only animal known that can revert to its polyp stage after sexual maturation. These 4-millimeter creatures are the only immortal animals known to man.

Discovered in 1883, the Turritopsis dohrni’s regenerative capacity was recently realized in the 1990s. Today, genetically identical Turritopsis dohrni have invaded tropical and cooler waters, adapting with ease to the environment. Though the species originated in the Caribbean ocean, swarms of these jellyfish are found worldwide. Scientists speculate that the jellyfish glom onto ships in their cyst state and are transported to faraway oceans, populating the seas with these undying creatures. These animals are only susceptible to death by contracting a disease in their polyp stage or by being prayed upon.

But as these jellyfish continually replicate, fears are arising concerning the ever-booming population. Found off the shores of Spain, Japan, Panama and the Caribbean, these jellyfish may overrun the oceans. Scientists only recently discovered the presence of these immortal jellyfish after the species was well established, highlighting the inconspicuous spread of the species. Scientists have emphasized how difficult it is to detect the presence of these jellyfish until a full swam of them hits the sea. Now, the question remains if the immortal jellyfish population needs to be monitored to prevent an aquatic imbalance and how their presence will affect the existing ocean habitat.

As far as applying this discovery for human benefit, scientists insist that the information they obtain will not work toward advancing beauty creams or other products. Instead, the focus is on cancer. They suspect that these jellyfish have an unparalleled cellular repair mechanism and cancer is spawned from rogue cells. Understanding these jellyfish’s regenerative abilities may shed light upon the cancer epidemic that plagues so many people.

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/phoenixation/2984477902/

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