This article was written by Eden & Joshua (post scholarship success).
‘It’s official. The only thing we can be sure of in life is tax.’
Immortality has been on the minds of humans since the beginning of history, with one of the first books, written in about the 22nd Century BC: ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’, a story of a hero called Gilgamesh who goes on a quest seeking immortality.
Recently, there has been a lot of talk flowing around the scientific world about immortality as a realistic prospect in the future. That is to say that a human will never die of old age, but is still subject to other causes of death.
Immortality, otherwise known as eternal life, is where the cells inside a living organism will stay eternally usable. You can think of it as like the difference between a rechargeable battery and a one-use one. At certain points, the rechargeable battery will become low on power (like when a human being reaches old age) but then will be returned to its full power state; the same as the cell looked like further back in its lifespan. Basically, the cell will not perform consistently. Anyway, this process is known as transdifferentiation (in other words, a mouthful!)
The reason scientists have become so excited about this prospect is that supposedly there has been a real example of transdifferentation in a small jelly-fish like organism known as Turritopsis nutricula.
The strange fried egg you see above you is able to rejuvenate itself back to the polyp stage of its life (the adolescent level) after it has become sexually mature and mated. It is a ‘hydrozoan’ and the only animal capable of transdifferentiation.
Cells in human bodies have a finite lifespan as they gradually ‘wear down’ and they soon die and are replaced. This happens to all cells, from skin cells to the billions of brain cells humans have. Supposedly Turritopsis can regenerate over and over again. But surely, it cannot keep on performing this ritual. It may be able to for a very long time, but surely not forever?
Dr Maria Miglietta of the Smithsonian Tropical Marine Institute says ‘we are facing a worldwide silent invasion’. The reason for this is that the numbers of Turritopsis are always increasing, because they never die of old age. Therefore, unlike other animals where if one is killed then one takes its place, if a Turritopsis is killed, two take its place. To make matters worse, these little organisms are being introduced accidentally to places all over the world as ship’s ballast water is discharged in ports.
This was always going to bring us onto the point of overcrowding. Yes, it’s cool, we now know that if we wanted, we could probably make ourselves immortal by putting some of Turritopsis’ genes into our bodies. However, we’re soon going to have to realise that there just isn’t enough space on the planet for immortal people. Case closed.