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The search for the fountain of youth has been ongoing ever since man decided that dying wasn’t all that appealing. And now, it appears that this elusive holy grail has been found, albeit by a species that is not ours! So who is the lucky winner of the everlasting life sweepstakes? None other than the humble and dime-sized jellyfish known as Turritopsis nutricula. This creature has accomplished what no other biological being on our planet has ever been known to do: reverse it’s aging to become young again after reaching full maturity!
How the Jellyfish Becomes "Immortal" Turritopsis typically reproduces the old-fashioned way, by the meeting of free-floating sperm and eggs. And most of the time they die the old-fashioned way too. But when starvation, physical damage, or other crises arise, "instead of sure death, [Turritopsis] transforms all of its existing cells into a younger state," said study author Maria Pia Miglietta, a researcher at Pennsylvania State University. The jellyfish turns itself into a bloblike cyst, which then develops into a polyp colony, essentially the first stage in jellyfish life. The jellyfish's cells are often completely transformed in the process. Muscle cells can become nerve cells or even sperm or eggs. Through asexual reproduction, the resulting polyp colony can spawn hundreds of genetically identical jellyfish—near perfect copies of the original adult. This unique approach to hardship may be helping Turritopsis swarms spread throughout the world's oceans, she added.
Most jellyfish species have a relatively fixed life span, which varies by species from hours to many months (long-lived mature jellyfish spawn every day or night; the time is also fairly fixed and species-specific). The medusa of Turritopsis nutricula is the only form known to have developed the ability to return to a polyp state, by a specific transformation process that requires the presence of certain cell types (tissue from both the jellyfish bell surface and the circulatory canal system). Careful laboratory experiments have revealed that all stages of the medusae, from newly released to fully mature individuals, can transform back into polyps. The transforming medusa is characterized first by deterioration of the bell and tentacles, with subsequent growth of a perisarc sheet and stolons, and finally feeding polyps. Polyps further multiply by growing additional stolons, branches and then polyps, to form colonial hydroids. This ability to reverse the life cycle (in response to adverse conditions) is probably unique in the animal kingdom, and allows the jellyfish to bypass death, rendering Turritopsis nutricula potentially biologically immortal. Studies in the laboratory showed that 100% of specimens could revert to the polyp stage, but so far the process has not been observed in nature, in part because the process is quite rapid and field observations at the right moment in time are unlikely. In spite of this remarkable ability, most Turritopsis medusae are likely to fall victim to the general hazards of life as plankton, including being eaten by other animals, or succumbing to disease.
While there are no current studies being conducted that look into the possibility of creating immortal cells in humans, some biologists, like Stefano Piraino of the University of Salento, are optimistic that this jellyfish might one day help rid the world of cancer and other deadly diseases. Their hope is rooted in the fact that, much like cancer cells, some of the cells present in Turritopsis dohrnii are able to selectively turn certain genes on or off and allow for the genetic programs that were present in earlier stages of the life cycle to be reactivated. If researchers can gain a better understanding of these jellyfish and unlock the secret behind what enables them to undergo such a radical transformation in cellular structure and function, not only would it help preserve the endangered ocean life that is now being threatened by invading jellyfish, but it might open the door to an entirely new class of medical treatments that could one day help eliminate some of humanity's most persistent ailments.
the Obama administration announced that it would make 13 additional stem cell lines eligible for federal funding, funding that was once again made available after the administration lifted the ban on stem cell research instated by Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush. Stem cell research, and the therapies that will come from the groundwork being layed by today’s scientists, represents the most significant contribution to the biological sciences and medicine that we have ever seen. Whether we ethically pursue the use of embryonic stem cells, or investigate ways to transdifferentiate adult stem cells into a pluripotent form, therapies that are born of such research will forever change what it means to be human. From simple healing of wounds to treatment of cancers, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and deeply genetic disorders and diseases, stem cell research has the potential to heal the sick, and perhaps more profoundly, help healthy adults pursue active, healthy, vibrant life well into old age, and if our jellyfish is any example, perhaps indefinitely.