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The Jellyfish That Holds a Key to Immortality

Motherboard paid a visit to Japan to visit a researcher who is studying the only known animal that has figured out how to defeat death.
August 8, 2014, 4:55pm

By reversing its aging process when it gets sick or injured, Japan's tiny Turritopsis dohrnii jellyfish is one of the only known animals that has figured out how to defeat death. Motherboard paid a visit to Japan to visit a researcher who is studying the microscopic animal to see if humans can eventually do the same.

In the sea, the animals are effectively immortal, but in a laboratory, they're much more fickle—they can die if they are eaten, burned, or removed from the water. Despite the challenges, Shin Kubota of Kyoto University's Seto Marine Biological Laboratory has managed to keep a colony alive in captivity. He's done it with complete dedication to the animal, changing their water and feeding them tiny shrimp by hand. He even writes karaoke songs about the jellyfish, which he performs wearing a jellyfish hat after he's done with his research for the day.


"Out of all the animals in the world, only they are able to reverse the aging process instead of dying," he said. "We really don't know their lifespan. They might live forever."

When they're damaged or hurt, the jellyfish spends three days returning to its polyp stage and eventually becomes an adult again. Kubota says that the jellyfish, though primitive, share more genetic data with humans than they do with things like insects or worms, which means that, if he or someone else is able to understand how they're able to reverse the aging process, the same theory might be applied to humans. (Other researchers are less bullish on the prospect.)

"I hope that we can extend our fixed lifespan with immortal jellyfish," he said.

But for now, there are still many mysteries left to solve, and the process behind their immortality is still poorly understood.

"I thought that if I studied them, I might understand the mystery of life on Earth," he said. "If you live 10,000 or 20,000 years you might not learn everything about them, and 100 years is all I've got, unfortunately."