The Immortal Jellyfish

In the year that I was born,  J. G. Ballard published a science fiction novel that I wouldn't get around to reading for another twenty years: The Drowned World, which takes place in the year 2145, when climate change has caused widespread global flooding, and the reversion of the planet's ecosystems to Triassic era conditions is already well underway. It's a fever-dream of a book, and you come away with a strong impression that Ballard does not consider himself to be in the hope business. When Martin Amis reviewed it, he called Ballard (who died in 2009) "one of the brightest new stars in postwar fiction." I haven't looked into the book in a long time, but I remember coming away from it feeling both exhilarated and extremely depressed – it had the quality of being extremely disturbing but also impossible to put down, and for reasons that had nothing to do with the attraction of conventional plotting. Ballard wrote The Drowned World, in which the slow-motion wreck of an entire planet proceeds entirely outside of the ability of humanity to do anything about it (the climate catastrophe he describes is the result of instability in the energy output of the Sun, not the addition of billions of tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels) but he also wrote Crash, which is about the potential of automobile accidents to cause sexual arousal. The phenomenon of being turned on by accidents or catastrophes is called symphorophilia (you learn something new every day, I had no idea the term existed until this week). At first glance, the two books don't seem to have much to do with each other, but though the perverse fascination of random disaster is explicitly the central theme of Crash, you can feel the same weird draw to the edge of the cliff in Drowned World as well.

I remembered Ballard because of a rather charming and also quite weird story I'd read in the New York Times – a long piece on a jellyfish which appears, to all intents and purposes, to be immortal, or at least sort of immortal. Why an oddity of nature reminded me of a novel about a broken planet being broiled to death, I hope to make clear.

But first, the jellyfish. Given how hot a topic longevity research and the quest for what some people like call a cure for death are these days, it's a bit funny, as the story points out, that more people haven't heard of the enigmatic little creature:

"You might expect that, having learned of the existence of immortal life, man would dedicate colossal resources to learning how the immortal jellyfish performs its trick. You might expect that biotech multinationals would vie to copyright its genome; that a vast coalition of research scientists would seek to determine the mechanisms by which its cells aged in reverse; that pharmaceutical firms would try to appropriate its lessons for the purposes of human medicine; that governments would broker international accords to govern the future use of rejuvenating technology. But none of this happened."

The animal in question is Turritopsis dohrnii, which technically isn't actually a jellyfish – it's what's called a hydrozoan, while the "true" jellyfish are scyphozoans. If you're puzzled by the distinction, you're in good company; it can be very hard to tell one from the other. There are a number of observable differences between the two but both are members of the phylum Cnidiaria, subphylum Medusozoa. Medusa, famous for her petrifying gaze and crown of writhing snakes, contributes her name to the medusa phase of the jellyfish lifecycle, which features a pulsating, translucent bell below which dangle filamentous tentacles. Most of us, if we saw Turritopsis dohrnii gamely making its way through the water – it's a tiny animal, less than five millimeters in diameter – would be happy to call it a jellyfish and leave it at that and despite the inherent fondness field biologists have for the minutiae of species classification, even they seem content to, for the most part, do the same thing.

While there may be a plethora of jellyfish, there's only one immortal jellyfish that we know of so far, and that's Turritopsis. Like all the Medusozoa, it goes through three stages in its life cycle. The first involves mature Turritopsis males and females – in the medusa stage – releasing eggs and sperm directly into the water to meet, or not, as fate dictates. It seems at first blush a wasteful way to ensure the survival of a species, but in practice it works just fine (Turritopsis is well on its way to achieving worldwide distribution). The fertilized eggs develop into free-swimming larva, which are singularly unprepossessing in appearance – tiny, ciliated, oblong blobs. These larvae eventually find something reasonably stable to stick to, and once stuck, they transform into the polyp form of the animal – a cluster of gelatinous stalks with budlike structures on top, most of which occupy themselves with the routine work of sessile filter feeding. A few polyps, however, produce buds at their tips that in the fullness of time, pinch off from the rest of the polyp to take on life as free-swimming medusas. There are boy medusas, and girl medusas, and so the cycle repeats ad infinitum – a squishy, translucent, nearly invisible invertebrate love story that's been playing out largely ignored by Homo sapiens for God knows how long. The Cnidarians are a most ancient tribe – hydrozoans first show up in the fossil record about a half-billion years ago, so your guess is as good as mine as to how long the little guys (and gals) have been going at it.

The reason Turritopsis is called "immortal" is because ... well, because it seems to be immortal. It's not invulnerable, mind you – they can certainly be killed or eaten with as little chance of staging a comeback as bell-bottomed trousers, and as it turns out part of the problem with studying them is that keeping them alive in a lab is apparently a lot more trouble than most people want to take. But if you injure or stress a Turritopsis medusae, and it's not killed outright, the animal can actually revert to polyp form – it drops to the sea floor, reabsorbs its tentacles, and its cells undergo a kind of reverse differentiation process, switching back to polyp mode over a period of several days. The new polyp produces medusae, and the whole thing starts over again. Not only that, Turritopsis appears to have no built-in limitation to its lifespan – while most jellyfish die according to a fairly rigid schedule, Turritopsis appears to be capable of doing its trick of reverting to infancy and blossoming (literally) into adulthood, an unlimited number of times.

There are a lot of odd things about the story of Turritopsis; one of them, as the Times story points out, is that the animal remains rather poorly studied. There just aren't that many experts in hydrozoan biology in the world; kids dreaming of growing up to be marine biologists probably find what environmentalists call charismatic megafauna – great white sharks, blue whales, giant squid– much more interesting. Who wants to spend their adult life noodling around with intractable, uncommunicative, nearly invisible blobs of protoplasm that will probably reward your greatest effort at keeping them alive in the lab by dying in droves?

It turns out that there is someone who finds the immortal jellyfish irresistible – a Japanese researcher, who in the Times story comes across as both an extremely meticulous scientist, and something of a charming nutcase. His name is Shin Kubota, and he keeps colonies of Turritopsis alive in Petri dishes in a cooler in his lab. He also has become a sort of minor cult figure and pop star in his hoome country, because when he's not studying the intricacies of Turritopsis biology, he sings. He sings a lot – his favorite place to let loose is a karaoke bar, but he also occasionally dresses up as (you can't make this stuff up) Mr Immortal Jellyfish Man, in which character (he makes frequent TV appearances) he sings songs celebrating Turritopsis as it can only be celebrated by a 60 year-old marine biologist dressed up in a jellyfish costume. Says the Times:

"But no television appearance is complete without a song. For his performances, he transforms himself from Dr. Shin Kubota, erudite marine biologist in jacket and tie, into Mr. Immortal Jellyfish Man. His superhero alter ego has its own costume: a white lab jacket, scarlet red gloves, red sunglasses and a red rubber hat, designed to resemble a medusa, with dangling rubber tentacles. With help from one of his sons, an aspiring musician, Kubota has written dozens of songs in the last five years and released six albums. Many of his songs are odes to Turritopsis. These include 'I Am Scarlet Medusa,' 'Life Forever,' 'Scarlet Medusa — an Eternal Witness,' 'Die-Hard Medusa' and his catchiest number, 'Scarlet Medusa Chorus.'"

The big question, of course, is whether or not Turritopsis has anything to teach us in terms of fighting aging in humans. There seems at first to be an unbridgeable gulf between a human being and a near-invisible jellyfish but as it turns out, there are tremendous genetic and biochemical similarities – Nature makes everything from bacteria to bison out of a relatively small number of building blocks, so the idea's far from being implausible in a theoretical sense. But I wonder very much about the preoccupation I've noticed in recent years in rather pie-in-the-sky life extension and immortality projects. The fascination with somehow re-engineering ourselves so that we can avoid aging and death is understandable, and to a certain degree, we're already doing it. Nobody has become immortal just yet, and cryopreservation of humans for the purpose of future revival remains an exercise in wishful thinking, but indisputably, the continuing advancement of medical science continues to improve life expectancy, given half a chance.

I think, though, about the three billion dollar donation Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Tina Chang, made in 2016, and whose objective was originally stated as "eliminating all disease by the end of the 21st century." When I first heard the announcement, I found it absolutely infuriating. The remark seemed a perfect example of the combination of willful naïveté and tone-deaf hubris that characterizes the tech industry at its worst.  It seemed to be rooted in some assumption that disease, instead of meaning a plethora of conditions so diverse as to defy both description, and certainly any kind of comprehensive solution, could be reduced to a single manageable problem just by throwing money at it. The rhetoric has been dialed back a bit since then and the effort is now described as a means of funding long-term medical research that doesn't necessarily have an immediate ROI, which is much more palatable. But the tech world's preoccupation with body and neuro-hacking strikes me more and  more as a manifestation, at least in some ways, of the somatizing anxiety of the affluent and the tendency to think that technology, having produced wealth for a small group of individuals past the wildest dreams of avarice of yesteryear's robber barons, can produce the same sort of instant solutions to the most fundamental and most defining aspect of human existence. If you want to achieve big things, sure, you have to think big, and assuming something is impossible is often a self-fulfilling prophecy; I get that we won't know if we don't try. But patently unrealistic wishful thinking, no matter how much money there is behind it, strikes me as a regrettable reallocation of resources and public attention away from much more pressing problems.

I'm not worried about an artificial intelligence singularity, or about nanomechanisms gradually turning the planet to grey goo. These seem, even given the rapid rate at which certain problems in AI and nanotechnology are being solved, still quite abstract threats. A much more clear and present danger is climate change, which probably represents the single greatest threat, if not to humanity existentially, then to international security and peaceful stability that there is. It's immensely frustrating that the question has become politicized, as there is no doubt about the basic science underlying the notion that you can't just keep dumping billions of tons of CO2 into the air without it having, sooner or later, undesired effects. In the face of anxiety – and there is plenty to be anxious about, God knows, nowadays – it's easy to withdraw from the world, turn inward, and fall prey to a kind of narcissistically anxious attempt to control our bodies, since we don't seem to be able to control the world. 

Turritopsis is doing something else very interesting nowadays, besides going about the mundane business of being immortal – it's spreading around the world, having been transported across the globe by cargo ships that use seawater as ballast. These are great days to be a jellyfish – overfishing of apex predators that normally keep their populations in check, combined with warming of the ocean, have given jellyfish in general very favorable conditions for reproduction. Some people are working on ways to make them culinarily appealing to humans, on the theory that if you can't beat 'em, eat 'em; but you'd have to change an awful lot of people's minds about eating an awful lot of jellyfish for that to make a difference. Turritopsis is part of two fascinating stories – one is the search for physical immortality; the other is how bad climate change is going to get, since we have basically already passed the point of no return in terms of avoiding some fairly dire consequences. We don't know how and where either story is going to end, and if Turritopsis knows, it's keeping it to its gently bobbing, shape-shifting, immortal self.

Jack Forster2 Comments