The Immortal Jellyfish

By Olivia Thomas, Intern

We are born. We live. We die. Life is generally regarded as a one way street, and immortality is a concept most often reserved for religion or science fiction; however, there may be an exception. Turritopsis dohrnii, the immortal jellyfish, can potentially live forever. Yes, forever. Turritopsis reproduces through the meeting of sperm and free floating egg, nothing special. It is when confronted with some sort of life threatening emergency that the jellyfish activates a survival mechanism that allows it to age backwards.

Often called the "Benjamin Button of the sea," this jellyfish can turn itself into a cyst that resembles a blob. This blob becomes a polyp colony, which is basically the first stage in jellyfish life. In this process, all of the cells of the jellyfish are returned to a younger state. It is even possible for muscle cells to become nerve cells or sperm/egg cells. Following this age reversal, the polyp colony can spawn hundreds of identical jellyfish through asexual reproduction. This incredible process may be a factor in the rapid spread of this species throughout our world’s oceans. A recent study conducted by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama found genetically identical specimens of Turritopsis all over the world. Scientists suspect that the jellyfish may be travelling the world by hitching rides on long-distance cargo ships.

Currently, scientists are eagerly exploring their understanding of Turritopsis. The cellular mechanisms performed by the jellyfish will hopefully lead to a better understanding of the nature of cancer cells and how they spread. If nothing else, they are incredibly fascinating creatures, serving as a challenge to our conventional understanding of life.