The Immortal Jellyfish: Myth Brought to Reality

Stacy Thomas, Vishista Jain

When it comes to immortality, it is an idea passed off as a myth or an impossible idea. Ancient mythology, science fiction, and everything in between has touched on the concept of “eternal life”. Since the past few decades, we are finally stepping into our vision of the future. Scientists have discovered a new species of jellyfish that can regenerate into a younger version of itself and biologically live forever. Because of its fascinating ability, it has been dubbed the “immortal jellyfish” and with good reason.

Discovered in 1883 in the Mediterranean Sea and now in some areas around Japan, the immortal aspect of the Turritopsis dohrnii (scientific name of the Immortal Jellyfish) was not fully understood until the 1990s. Many scientists continued to take interest in the species after its discovery. Since then, these jellyfish have spread around the world because they are so miniscule that they can pass through holes in the lower compartments of ships. This results in them getting stuck on the ship and being carried to many foreign areas. They have started to adapt and thrive in such places.

The life cycle of a T. dohrnii begins as a miniscule, free-swimming larvae, known as planula. This stage is a shared stage between all species of jellyfish. As the planulae settle down, they root themselves to the seafloor and develop into polyp colonies. Unlike most other species of jellyfish, these colonies of polyps can construct themselves into cylindrical structures with branches. They eventually spawn “genetically identical medusae” (jellyfish) which can mature into adults within a couple weeks. This is the complete life cycle of the immortal jellyfish and it stays in the adult stage. The jellyfish forces all of its cells to revert back to its younger larvae form when it feels the threat of physical starvation or any potential harm to their life. By repeating the process of aging, it has earned itself the title of “biologically immortal”. Even though it has the ability of immortality, it can only use it when it is in its mature stage. So many young ones die of sickness or getting hunted by predators. Even so, the species has had a stable and sometimes growing population.

Fully grown, the T. dohrnii can reach about 4.5 mm in length, about the same or even less than the size of a pinky fingernail. They have a transparent bell-shape surrounding the body, allowing it to flaunt its bright red stomach. Adults have up to 90 tiny tentacles lining the outside of its bell. These tentacles help it become mobile in water. That’s where the bell shape comes in; one part sucks in the water which the other uses to force it back out and propel the jellyfish forward. This is how they move about the water and look for their food. Their diet is mainly made up of plankton, tiny molluscs, and fish eggs.

With all that we know about the species, it will be difficult to continue to study these creatures. However, Japanese scientist Shin Kubota has successfully kept a colony of T. dohrnii in petri dishes inside of a refrigerator in a small Japanese town. Kubota believes that these jellyfish hold the key to achieving immortality within humans. If not, it can be a promising solution to many deadly diseases. The Turritopsis dohrnii is an extraordinary creature, going out of what we think of as reality, and continues to pique curiosity among us all as to what it might have for the future.


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