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On the way to immortality

The regenerating jellyfish

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The first known case of a sexually mature, multicellular organism regressing to an immature life form is the cnidarian: Turritopsis dohrnii.

Dr. Klaus Duffner | Germany

Whereas most jellyfish die after depositing sperm and eggs in water, the jellyfish Turritopsis, which is only half a centimeter long, sinks down to the seabed after reproduction and regresses to a gelatinous mass. But this amorphous mass soon develops into a new, genetically identical polyp, which then goes on to discharge new jellyfish.


From a gland cell into a neuron

The Turritopsis thus undergoes reju­venation along with regressive aging. As this process can theoretically repeat itself indefinitely, it is regarded as a key to “immortality.”

Ferdinando Boero, one of the authors who published a detailed paper in 1996 on the lifecycle of Turritopsis dohrnii (“The reversal of the lifecycle”), compared this regression to a butterfly, which, instead of dying, can regress to a caterpillar. This transformation can occur when environmental conditions worsen or when the animals are harmed. As they regress, they benefit from an unusual ability called “cellular transdifferentiation,” wherein mature cells are able to transform into totally different cell types, e.g., from a gland cell into a neuron.


Exploring eternal life

Although laboratory studies indicate that 100 percent of the Turritopsis can undergo the recovery process, the transformation has not yet been observed in a natural sea habitat. This, say the biologists, is related to the rapid unfolding of the process, making the likelihood of observing such a phenomenon in nature extremely low.

Although one might think studying the mechanism that leads to “eternal life” ought to be a field of research with much potential, amazingly few scientists in the world are involved with these animals. One of them is Shin Kubota from Shirahama, Japan, a small coastal town south of Kyoto. The zoologist is convinced that both oncology and gerentology could benefit from the findings that are slumbering in jellyfish. Kubota is one of the few experts worldwide who has managed extended culture of the delicate animals in the laboratory.

Although cnidarians are one of the most primitive organisms, their genome shares an amazing number of similarities with higher animals and, thus, also humans. They provide us an exciting opportunity to explore “eternal life.”

Dr. Klaus Duffner

Dr. Klaus Duffner | Germany

Scientific Journalist
Medizin & Wissen Freiburg

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