Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality?


Yoshihiko Ueda for The New York Times

After more than 4,000 years — almost since the dawn of recorded time, when Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh that the secret to immortality lay in a coral found on the ocean floor — man finally discovered eternal life in 1988. He found it, in fact, on the ocean floor. The discovery was made unwittingly by Christian Sommer, a German marine-biology student in his early 20s. He was spending the summer in Rapallo, a small city on the Italian Riviera, where exactly one century earlier Friedrich Nietzsche conceived “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”: “Everything goes, everything comes back; eternally rolls the wheel of being. Everything dies, everything blossoms again. . . .”


Sommer was conducting research on hydrozoans, small invertebrates that, depending on their stage in the life cycle, resemble either a jellyfish or a soft coral. Every morning, Sommer went snorkeling in the turquoise water off the cliffs of Portofino. He scanned the ocean floor for hydrozoans, gathering them with plankton nets. Among the hundreds of organisms he collected was a tiny, relatively obscure species known to biologists as Turritopsis dohrnii. Today it is more commonly known as the immortal jellyfish.

Sommer kept his hydrozoans in petri dishes and observed their reproduction habits. After several days he noticed that his Turritopsis dohrnii was behaving in a very peculiar manner, for which he could hypothesize no earthly explanation. Plainly speaking, it refused to die. It appeared to age in reverse, growing younger and younger until it reached its earliest stage of development, at which point it began its life cycle anew. Sommer was baffled by this development but didn’t immediately grasp its significance. (It was nearly a decade before the word “immortal” was first used to describe the species.) But several biologists in Genoa, fascinated by Sommer’s finding, continued to study the species, and in 1996 they published a paper called “Reversing the Life Cycle.” The scientists described how the species — at any stage of its development — could transform itself back to a polyp, the organism’s earliest stage of life, “thus escaping death and achieving potential immortality.” This finding appeared to debunk the most fundamental law of the natural world — you are born, and then you die. One of the paper’s authors, Ferdinando Boero, likened the Turritopsis to a butterfly that, instead of dying, turns back into a caterpillar. Another metaphor is a chicken that transforms into an egg, which gives birth to another chicken. The anthropomorphic analogy is that of an old man who grows younger and younger until he is again a fetus. For this reason Turritopsis dohrnii is often referred to as the Benjamin Button jellyfish. Yet the publication of “Reversing the Life Cycle” barely registered outside the academic world. 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. Some progress has been made, however, in the quarter-century since Christian Sommer’s discovery. We now know, for instance, that the rejuvenation of Turritopsis dohrnii and some other members of the genus is caused by environmental stress or physical assault. We know that, during rejuvenation, it undergoes cellular transdifferentiation, an unusual process by which one type of cell is converted into another — a skin cell into a nerve cell, for instance. (The same process occurs in human stem cells.) We also know that, in recent decades, the immortal jellyfish has rapidly spread throughout the world’s oceans in what Maria Pia Miglietta, a biology professor at Notre Dame, calls “a silent invasion.” The jellyfish has been “hitchhiking” on cargo ships that use seawater for ballast. Turritopsis has now been observed not only in the Mediterranean but also off the coasts of Panama, Spain, Florida and Japan. The jellyfish seems able to survive, and proliferate, in every ocean in the world. It is possible to imagine a distant future in which most other species of life are extinct but the ocean will consist overwhelmingly of immortal jellyfish, a great gelatin consciousness everlasting. From: November 28 2012

Postado por kristine - dez 2, 2016 | Novidades | 0 comentários


What does it take for a society to be sickened by its own behavior and to change its attitudes? That can be asked about questions of power and political repression—and also about distinctive national pathologies. When did a majority of South African Boers realize that Apartheid was reprehensible? How about whites in the American South? When will the Japanese force their whalers to stop, finally realizing that their persistence has caused widespread international revulsion and opprobrium? When will the British realize that public drunkenness—a practice now internationally associated with them as a nation—is something to be embarrassed about? When will we Americans realize that our society is an unacceptably violent one, that this is how the rest of the world sees us, and that much of that violence is side effects viagra diarrhea associated with guns? Will it be the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School? Where is our threshold for self-awareness?

A few years ago, the British found their own threshold— with guns—after an event not unlike the heartbreaking tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. On March 13, 1995, in the small Scottish town of Dunblane, a forty-three-year-old man, Thomas Hamilton walked into a primary school with four handguns and opened fire, methodically killing sixteen children and one adult teacher before killing himself. The unprecedented massacre of children led, within two years, to legislation that imposed a total ban on the private ownership of handguns in the United Kingdom. Today, no one in the United Kingdom can privately own a handgun or a semiautomatic weapon. (There are exceptions made for some historic and antique weapons, and the ban does not encompass Northern Ireland.) There was not much hand wringing or heated debate over this legislation. It was discussed, and generic viagra super active (sildenafil citrate) enacted, with overwhelming public support, in response to the mood of national shame and grief over the killings.

There is still violence in Britain. In recent years, cialis coupon free trial there has been a disquieting upsurge of violence amongst teen-agers in large British cities. Much of it is gang related, and almost all of it involves knives. Knives are not hard to obtain, but kill far fewer people than guns do. After the movie-theatre shooting in Aurora, Colorado, the Guardian did the math, comparing gun homicides in the U.S. to England and Wales in one year: 9,146 to forty-one. Even taking into account the difference in population, the rates of gun homicide per a hundred thousand people are 2.97 versus .07.

In China, where private gun ownership is also banned, but where social alienation is clearly becoming a larger problem, there have been a distressing number of recent attacks by deranged knife-wielding men on schoolchildren. On Friday, in fact, as Evan Osnos writes, in an incident with uncanny similarities to the Newtown massacre, a young man walked into the Chenpeng Village Primary School near the city of Xinyang, south of Beijing, and attacked the schoolchildren with a knife as they arrived at school. Twenty-two children were injured before the assailant, said to be a thirty-four-year-old man, was subdued and arrested by police—but there were no deaths. If he had been using a gun, the likelihood is that most of those children would now be dead.

A heated debate on new gun-control legislation has been sparked off by the Sandy Hook massacre. But if past patterns are anything to go by, it’s unlikely that anything will change yet in the United States. What will it require for a majority of Americans to realize that they have a national problem that needs to be urgently addressed? We have lost four Presidents to gunmen in our short history as a nation, and very nearly lost several more. Last year, Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford’s promising political career was cut short by a gunman who shot her in the head, killed six others and wounded thirteen more. Gifford spends her days now

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But Americans seem to take the shooting of their politicians in stride. Would even another, much larger school massacre bring about change? If the numbers are on a truly epic scale—an American scale—perhaps enough people will finally say “enough.” If someone murdered a hundred schoolchildren in a single day with guns, would a majority of Americans agree to true restrictions on them? What is our national threshold for shame?

Photograph by Spencer Platt/Getty.

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