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Scientists unlock the key to immortality… in jellyfish

Would you become a kid again if you could?

By Cassidy Ward

Humans fear death so much that some of us would willingly trade our immortal souls — if such a thing exists — and become vampires for a chance to keep wandering the world a little longer. You can quench your thirst for vampire lore with the upcoming Vampire Academy series (streaming on Peacock Sept. 15), but in the meantime jellyfish might be teaching us how to live forever without needing to drink the blood of unsuspecting mortals.

We’ve known for some time that Turritopsis dohrnii, otherwise known as the immortal jellyfish, was out there living its best life — over and over again — by intermittently switching between its adult and larval stages. When the stresses of being an adult become too much for it to bear, it simply turns back the clock to become a juvenile and starts the whole process over again. While disease or predation can and does end the life of individual jellies, they don’t succumb to the same biological ticking clock as the rest of us.

While we’ve been able to observe this behavior in immortal jellyfish, so far it has been unclear what biological mechanisms contribute to their everlasting life. Now, scientists from the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Oviedo have identified the genes responsible, opening the door to future research. Their findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Zeroing in on what makes the immortal jellyfish special required a comparison of their genome with that of a close relative. Scientists compared their DNA with that of Turritopsis rubra, a jellyfish which is similar to the immortal jelly but, importantly, cannot regenerate. By comparing the genomes, they were able to identify specific sequences which the immortal jelly uses to revert from its adult medusa stage back to its larval stage, a process known as transdifferentiation.

The comparison revealed genes involved in DNA replication and repair, telomere maintenance, stem cell production, communication between cells, and reduction of the oxidative cellular environment, according to a press release from the University of Oviedo. All of those processes are associated with the healthy, or unhealthy, aging of humans.

The findings suggest there isn’t one thing which allows immortal jellyfish to avoid the reaper. Instead, aging is akin to a series of locked doors, each of which needs a specific genetic key. Only by having the whole set of keys can you travel backward along the aging corridor. While most animals are strapped to a biological tram which only moves in one direction, their cells becoming what they are destined to be and then remaining that way, immortal jellyfish can coax their cells into becoming whatever they need to be no matter what stage of life they are in.

Researchers were careful to note that there are no immediate applications pertaining to human aging. Don’t expect to visit your local department store and find immortal jellyfish face cream or dehydrated polyp powder promising to make you young. However, they did note that a better understanding of how immortal jellyfish control their cellular states could provide an avenue for tackling aging-related diseases.

What we have learned about the immortal jellyfish could lead to extended lifespan and, importantly, higher quality of life in old age, but it’s unlikely we’ll be able to revert to our prepubescent stages like they do. When you stop to think about it, would you really want to even if you could? Immortality sounds nice, but at what cost?