If there is one thing that could be described as a universal fear, I would put my money on death. It has led to people running away from their homes, countries, and families in order to survive. Ultimately, it’s the reason for the development of new vaccines and medicines every day. The one thing that these vaccines and medicines can’t stop, however, is the aging process. Let’s face it, it’s inevitable. You can’t escape it. It’s going to happen to everyone at some point. Or is it?
Deep beneath the surface of the ocean, there is a species of jellyfish that is breaking this natural law. How this species is doing it could possibly lead humans down the path towards immortality as well.
What is the Jellyfish?
The type of jellyfish that can achieve immortality is called the Turritopsis dohrnii. This transparent jellyfish has a visible, bright red stomach. It reaches a maximum length of 4.5 millimeters (.18 inches) and is known to live in swarms. As of now, it is not endangered whatsoever. In fact, in part due to their ability to achieve immortality, it has been invading oceans around the world.
How are the jellyfish immortal?
To understand how the Turritopsis dohrnii are able to achieve immortality it important to understand how these jellyfish grow. Similar to other jellyfish, the Turritopsis dohrnii starts out as a larva (a developed fertilized egg). This larva swims around the ocean floor in order to find a safe spot to develop into a jellyfish. Once it finds a place on the ocean floor, it will grow into a colony of polyps, which then clone themselves to become ephyra (the baby jellyfish), which will become the adult jellyfish.
What sets the Turritopsis dohrnii apart from other jellyfish is that whenever it incurs physical damage or it is suffering from starvation, its cells will take a step back in their development and the jellyfish will become a polyp again with identical DNA as before. From here it will grow into a jellyfish again. This process can happen an unlimited amount of times, but it only occurs when the jellyfish suffers from physical damage or possibly starvation. This process is called transdifferentiation.
What is transdifferentiation?
Transdifferentiation is the process by which cells other than stem cells are able to turn into cells of another type. In humans, if your liver cells could turn into brain cells, that would be called transdifferentiation. While the cause of transdifferentiation is unclear, one theory is that there is “a change in the expression of a master switch gene whose normal function is to distinguish the two cell types in normal development” (NCBI)
How could transdifferentiation be used?
In some cases, when transdifferentiation does occur in humans, the process can turn into a form of neoplasia, an early form of cancer. Because Neoplasia has a low survival rate, once scientists are able to understand how transdifferentiation works they will likely have a better understanding of how this cancer forms and how to prevent it. The understanding of transdifferentiation will also help the development of cell therapies, a new development in medicine that is meant to help with the healing process in humans. Finally, understanding transdifferentiation will help the possibility of transplanting stem cells in order to replace diseased or damaged cells.
Ethan Blum ’17
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Shen, Chia-Ning, Zoë D Burke, and David Tosh. “Transdifferentiation, Metaplasia and Tissue Regeneration.” Organogenesis 1.2 (2004): 36–44. Print.
AMNH. “The Immortal Jellyfish.” American Museum of Natural History, n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2016.
Than, Ker. “”Immortal” Jellyfish Swarm World’s Oceans.” N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2016.