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Can The Life Cycle Be Reversed? Ask a Jellyfish

In recent years, scientists who study the effects of aging on the body have sought ways to reverse the effects of aging, and perhaps extend life indefinitely. Futurist Ray Kurzweil, among others, claims that a strict schedule of exercise paired with a healthy diet, a strict regimen of supplements, and daily intake of green tea and red wine, have helped him not only improve his health, but also nearly “reverse the effects of aging.”

Especially in the case of red wine, many have cited the resveratrol it contains as being the “magic bullet” to combat aging. Rich with phytoestrogen, antioxidants and anti-cancer agents, there are no doubt benefits to moderate consumption of wine, although some warn that the supposed “anti aging” qualities are merely an exaggeration. In other words, if you want to get around aging, first you’ve got to find ways to deal with things like entropy.

Then again, a simpler way might involve asking a jellyfish.

Turritopsis dohrnii is a peculiar species, even among jellyfish. In more recent years, it was given the nickname, “the immortal jellyfish” for the unusual way it appears to reverse its aging process, whereby it returns to a polyp stage, and then repeats its lifecycle… perhaps indefinitely.

Turritopsis dohrnii.

Turritopsis dohrnii.

First discovered in 1988, German biologist Christian Sommer found the creature while snorkeling, and had been studying it amidst various hydrozoans when he noticed its peculiar ability to reverse the aging process. The creature was studied for years, culminating in a paper in 1996, “Reversing the Life Cycle”, which appeared to state the obvious, yet impossible reality: the creature seemed to be one that could reverse the aging process effectively enough to exist indefinitely, perhaps for thousands of years.

Despite the ground-shaking implications of an animal that defied everything previously understood of the life cycles of marine (or any other) biology, very little came of the study and its unique implications, as was discussed in New York Times Magazine in 2012:

Yet the publication of “Reversing the Life Cycle” barely registered outside the academic world. You might expect that, having learned of the existence of immortal life, man would dedicate colossal resources to learning how the immortal jellyfish performs its trick. You might expect that biotech multinationals would vie to copyright its genome; that a vast coalition of research scientists would seek to determine the mechanisms by which its cells aged in reverse; that pharmaceutical firms would try to appropriate its lessons for the purposes of human medicine; that governments would broker international accords to govern the future use of rejuvenating technology. But none of this happened.

Despite the skepticism espoused among many in the scientific community about whether this animal holds implications for eventual life-extension for humans, others are more hopeful. Shin Kubota with the Kyoto University Seto Marine Biological Lab, argues that, “Turritopsis application for human beings is the most wonderful dream of mankind… 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.”

Li Ching-yun - a Chinese herbalist.

Li Ching-yun – a Chinese herbalist.

Previously here at Mysterious Universe, I had examined a folk legend of a man, Li Ching-yun, a Chinese herbalist who was said to have come from Kaihsien in the Szechwan Province. Ching-yun claimed that he had claimed to live for 250 years, which is more than three times the average lifespan of the average human being. Curiously, census records did seem to show his name reappearing over the course of several generations, as cited by one Chinese scholar, although it seemed more likely that this was merely evidence of the same name being carried over to a number of men in the family, a custom which is common among many cultures.

Nonetheless, Ching-yun claimed his strict diet of herbs, paired with the body postures he had learned to aid in preserving his health, were the secret to his success. In truth, this purported anti-aging regimen is not at all unlike Ray Kurzweil’s current herb-infused diet, paired with daily exercise. With time, perhaps we’ll know whether Kurzweil, or perhaps others who employ similar lifestyles, will have succeeded in achieving prolonged life as a result.

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When it comes to the actual science behind anti aging, there is perhaps some merit to the idea that certain dietary supplements could be effective in helping preserve youth. On theory about the causes underlying aging holds that mitochondrial decay could be a prime culprit, and that certain supplements are capable of boosting levels of nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide, or NAD, within a body’s cellular structure. Certain lab studies involving animal research indicate that this may be the case, though no clinical trials among humans have clearly shown that increasing cellular levels of NAD will really affect aging.

Despite the trends involving various supplements to regulate the body’s natural anti aging capabilities, scientific studies will be required to see if there are indeed positive trends to be found here. With an ever-increasing interest in reproducing how a few organisms already have overcome aging through evolution, humans may indeed one day be able to live far longer lives. Which, of course, gives the floor to an entirely different set of considerations about the future of our species, and how scientific advancement is affecting the way we live and interact with the world, and each other.

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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