A strange alien-looking creature spreading across the world’s oceans is practically immortal. It’s Turritopsis dohrnii, the “immortal jellyfish” that can avoid death when stressed. In a manner that’s similar to a butterfly reverting to a caterpillar, the jellyfish reverts to its coral-like polyp stage. Then, it goes on to become a jellyfish again, bypassing death altogether.
It wasn’t until the 90s that scientists became aware of how amazing this little creature truly is. However, the tiny creature, also called the Benjamin Button jellyfish, is becoming more widely known. Could the immortal jelly reveal clues about fighting cancer or even unlock the secrets of immortality for humans?
Well, such an idea isn’t new at all. The concept dates back thousands of years to one of the earliest recorded works of literature, as we’ll see.
A Coral-Like Key to Immortality Adrift in the Oceans?
Today, many scientists are doubtful the key to immortality can be found in the jellyfish. However, one of the world’s preeminent experts believes otherwise. Shin Kubota, from Japan’s Kyoto University, has high hopes.
“Turritopsis application for human beings is the most wonderful dream of mankind,” Kubota told a New York Times journalist. “Once we determine how the jellyfish rejuvenates itself, we should achieve very great things. My opinion is that we will evolve and become immortal ourselves.”
Kubota is one of the world’s only people to have maintained the jellyfish’s captive population for over 15 years. Although they can avoid death under certain stressful conditions, they are generally hard to maintain artificially, requiring daily feedings.
Another expert, Dr. Maria Pia Miglietta from Texas A&M University, studies the jellyfish. She refers to what she’s learned about Turritopsis’ processes as “the Holy Grail of regenerative medicine.” See her discuss this below in the video from Quartz:
Unlocking the Powers of Transdifferentiation
The immortal jellyfish can transform its cells through transdifferentiation. Thus, the jelly’s muscle cells can turn into nerve cells, sperm, or egg cells. However, transdifferentiation is not unique to the jellyfish and has been induced experimentally in mice.
What’s more, humans have similar abilities throughout the body in stem cells. In time, as more scientists study Turritopsis dohrnii and stem cells, is it possible humans can discover how to bypass the stem cell stage and unlock their transformational abilities?
Will people one day be able to transform into a more youthful state? It’s possible.
The Secret of Immortality Found in an Ancient Text
Whether humans can attain immortality seems like something from science fiction. However, the idea is ancient, dating back thousands of years before science fiction existed in ancient Babylonian mythology.
In the Epic of Gilgamesh, dating back to at least 5,000 years ago, the King of Uruk, Gilgamesh, learns about a secret to immortality. Interestingly, it sounds just like the immortal jellyfish, slowly spreading across the world today in the ballasts of ships.
Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim, and the Quest for Eternal Life
In the Gilgamesh epic, Gilgamesh goes on a quest for eternal life. In that quest, he consults with the great sage Utnapishtim, the only man to survive a great world flood.
Along with his wife, they preserved animal and human life in a great boat, which they built. Yes, it sounds identical to the biblical story of Noah but predates the Bible story.
Time magazine noted the similarities between Gilgamesh and the Bible’s Noah’s Ark in a review of the Noah movie from 2014:
“The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh dates back nearly 5,000 years and is thought to be perhaps the oldest written tale on the planet. In it, there is an account of the great sage Utnapishtim, who is warned of an imminent flood to be unleashed by wrathful gods. He builds a vast circular-shaped boat, reinforced with tar and pitch, that carries his relatives, grains, and animals. After enduring days of storms, Utnapishtim, like Noah in Genesis, releases a bird in search of dry land.”
From Time Magazine
Related Read: The Epic Of Gilgamesh, Tablet XI, The Flood And A Comparison To the Bible’s Flood
Like Noah, Utnapishtim survives, but then the god Enlil rewards him and his wife with immortality. Thus, they become the ancestors of a new human race.
The Secret at the Bottom of the Sea
Did Utnapishtim, who was granted immortality by the gods, have the secret for immortality? After finally finding the immortal sage, Gilgamesh learns that the secret is at the sea’s bottom.
At first, Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh that only the gods can grant immortality. Then, he concedes that there may be a way to rejuvenate to a more youthful state. At that point, he tells Gilgamesh about a “plant” found at the bottom of the ocean. This plant could reveal secrets about longer life, if not immortality.
So, Gilgamesh sets out to find the “plant that looks like a box-thorn” sometimes translated to a coral. Then, he manages to lose it – to a snake.
“Gilgamesh obtains the plant by binding stones to his feet to allow him to walk on the bottom of the sea. He plans to use the flower to rejuvenate the old men of the city of Uruk and then to use it himself. Unfortunately, he places the plant on the shore of a lake while he bathes, and it is stolen by a serpent, which loses its old skin and is thus reborn.”
Thus, Gilgamesh must learn to live with his mortality and dies unable to unlock the undersea coral’s secrets.
An Ancient Story Turned Real?
Could one of the world’s oldest stories be talking about the immortal jellyfish? Well, when the jellyfish is injured, it can fall to the bottom of the sea. Then, it turns into a blob and grows into a plant-like polyp.
Indeed, there is a striking similarity between the story of Gilgamesh and the factual reality of the immortal jellyfish.
Perhaps one day, unlike Gilgamesh, scientists might discover the secrets for rejuvenation or a cure for cancer and brain disease, if not immortality? Already, scientists have learned how to reprogram cells in adult mice to make them young stem cells.
Also, scientists have learned that jellyfish could be one of our most distant ancient ancestors in recent years: the root of the Tree of Life.
See more about the Epic of Gilgamesh and Utnapishtim from CrashCourse:
Featured image: Gilgamesh tablet by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0) with screenshots via YouTube