In this age of modern medicine and scientific breakthroughs, more and more people are living healthier, happier lives. The search for cures and medicines is ever advancing, as more attention is paid to illnesses and their worldwide effects, take the Coronavirus for example. But what if I told you that the next big breakthrough, the key to longer lives, could come from jellyfish?
It sounds absurd that aquatic animals living in the deepest and darkest parts of the world could be the solution for lengthening human lives. After all, one wouldn’t imagine the genetic makeup of jellyfish to be in any way compatible with humans; but the two organisms are closer tied than one might assume. In fact, the genome of the jellyfish is more alike to humans than insects and other wilder beasts. But even so, one might ask, what has that got to do with medicine and the advancement of science?
I present to you: Turitopsis dohrnii. This miniscule species of jellyfish has the magical ability to regenerate, to reverse the aging process, to avoid death. Simply put, the T.dohrnii are theoretically immortal. I say theoretically because no one has lived long enough to witness the death of any one of these. According to Shin Kubota, an associate professor at Kyoto university, it is theorised that the T.dohrnii have evolved from the very root of the evolutionary tree – it’s possible that they are a holdover from when life first began on planet Earth. For professor Kubota, the T.dohrnii could be the answer to the mystery of how life first began; they could also provide answers for how humans could possibly regenerate in the future, avoiding certain death.But how do these miraculous jellyfish regenerate?
The process itself is simple. The T.dohrnii, like many jellyfish of their size, typically live for approximately 3 months; however, instead of dying as one would expect them to, the T.dohrnii puts down its roots and clones itself hundreds of times into separate but genetically identical polyps. Polyps are the earliest stage in the lifecycle of the T.dohrnii: think of them as a baby. In essence, these jellyfish live well into their retirement, until they are seriously injured or catch diseases which would normally kill them, except they have a magic wand which allows them to reverse the aging process and turn back into a baby, avoiding death. As far as we know, the T.dohrnii is the only organism in the entire world which can do this. But are there any limitations to this?
The short answer is yes. However, as there is not much research in the world on the T.dohrnii, we don’t know the full extent of their abilities. Through Professor Kubota’s efforts, we know that they can’t regenerate if they have been taken out of the water at some point in their lifetime; they also can’t regenerate if they’ve been engulfed or digested by a predator in the ocean; they also can’t reverse their aging process if they’ve been burned – but with that being said, the T.dohrnii are remarkably resilient. Even if they are seriously injured or ill, they can still plant their roots and regenerate into their baby stage, as a polyp. This has been evidenced as Professor Kubota demonstrated in his lab; even if the T.dohrnii were punctured, after 3 days at 25 degrees Celsius, they would still recover and regenerate back into a polyp. This makes us question if this mechanism can be applied to humanity. It’s safe to say we wouldn’t transform back into babies, but could this be used to extend human life? And if so … should it?
Whilst Professor Kubota says yes, I say no. The ethics behind extending human life may seem simple at first: why wouldn’t you want to enable people to live longer lives? This is something which has been at the core of science for millennia. From fictional works of ‘the philosophers stone’ which had magical properties of eternal youth, or historical attempts at alchemy to procure a substance which could cure all ills, scientists have been trying to achieve immortality for ever. But in the modern world where there is a growing older generation in developed countries like the UK and a decreasing birth rate, having people live longer wouldn’t just be unnatural, it would tip the balance of the world and create a situation where there aren’t enough young people to look after the old. Unlike T.dohrnii, people don’t produce hundreds of children when they are about to die or get older. In fact the reproductive capability of all people decreases with age. Furthermore, whilst T.dohrnii simply create an new version of themselves whilst on the brink of death, humans with longer lifespans would still be susceptible to chronic diseases, just for a longer period of time. This would result in an exponential increase in the number of people needing medical care, and would put an unnecessary strain on already pressured healthcare systems around the world. Such unsustainable practises would certainly bring them to the brink of utter collapse. So what’s the point of studying the T.dohrnii?
The T.dohrnii are amazing creatures which deserve to have the spotlight in research. They have a rare ability which should be studied and appreciated for its biology and chemistry. But not all research has to solely benefit mankind; instead we should research organisms like T.dohrnii for the sake of increasing human knowledge: to appreciate the biochemical reactions which are behind these wonders of the world and apply this knowledge to create a better planet for all creatures, not just humans.