You’ve heard about immortality in science fiction films, but immortality is actually built into the cells of certain organisms. How can this be? Unlike humans, these creatures rarely die because they get old, and ageing simply isn’t a phenomenon these guys experience – that’s why there’s no anti-wrinkle cream marketed towards molluscs.
Is biological immortality real?
The idea of biological immortality gets scientists riled up. For some, immortality can actually be proved on the level of cells and what are known as telomeres (these protect the end of chromosomes).
Others are more vocal about the way these organisms are, in fact, also definitely mortal. They can be killed by other animals, disease and extreme changes in the environment – it’s just playing with semantics. As Thomas Bosch at the University of Kiel says, “immortal really means you don’t die at all, which is stupid.”
Strong words, but as far as semantic technicalities go, this is by far one of the more interesting ones. Let’s take a look at the near-immortal beings in the animal world.
The Immortal Jellyfish, as its name suggests, can live a very long time. It’s a grand term, immortality, but those who are bestowed with it mostly deserve it. Found in the Caribbean sea, the Turritopsis dohrnii (the Immortal Jellyfish’s more formal name) is able to revert itself to a sexually immature stage even after it’s reached full adult age. Wow, we don’t think we’ve ever come across the term “sexually immature” in a positive context before.
The appropriately named Immortal Lobster (we’re sensing a scientific nicknaming trend here) has similar biological characteristics as the Immortal Jellyfish. An enzyme known as telomerase prevents the DNA in the lobsters’ cells from being damaged as they’re replicated. Every time this happens the telomerase shorten, making sure the lobster never ages.
The next time you come across the humble American lobster, remember that it might have the impressive ability to regenerate.
The bristlecone pine
This particular tree’s age might be due to what scientists call meristems. These are bits of the roots and shoots that contain within huge hoards of stem cells. Stem cells, as you may not remember from Biology class, generate new growth. So, the bristlecone pine’s stem cells can apparently remain youthful and vigorous for millennia.
We can’t help asking, where can we get hold of a few of these roots and shoots? Youth and vigour, what a combination.
A mollusc called Ming
Ming the mollusc, at 507-years-old, was not only the world’s oldest creature, but was also inadvertently killed by the scientists in charge of it. At the time, those same scientists didn’t know that the elderly bivalve was in fact 100 years older than they originally thought, compacting the gravity of the murderous gaffe even further.
Ming the quahog mollusc was the oldest verified solitary animal on record. As well as sounding like my obituary, this means that Ming didn’t need much to stay alive. Who knows what sights Ming has seen, and how much longer he could have survived.
Turtles are stuck being teenagers for most of their life. Imagine having a terrible haircut, impromptu mood swings, and an inability to look up from a screen for decades. Hellish. But the science behind it is incredible: once it hits sexual maturity, a turtle lives on this biological autopilot for centuries. It sounds like an exhausting life, that of the turtle: it’s technically feasible that turtles can live and have sex forever.
Find out more
Can psychedelic drugs help at the end of life? Read our article on it here.
How useful will your corpse be? We take a look at how you can donate your body to science.