Is this simple jellyfish a real anti-aging miracle?

I often warn you to be wary of products promising anti-aging miracles. These sorts of “magic bullets” just don’t exist. But I may have to amend my view in one regard. About a year ago, I came across a fascinating story about a true anti-aging wonder in the New York Times. The story actually begins more than 4,000 years ago with the ancient Babylonian-Sumerian legend of Gilgamesh. The legend came from the area around today’s Iraq. According to the legend, the secret to immortality lay at the bottom of the sea, hidden in a coral.

In 1988, a German marine-biology student discovered just such a coral off the coast of Rapallo on the Italian Riviera. Actually, the student discovered a hydrozoan organism that resembles either a soft coral or a jellyfish, depending upon its stage in the life cycle. You see, when placed in a laboratory dish, this organism ages in reverse until it reaches its earliest stage of development. Then, it begins its life cycle all over again.

Today, scientists call this curious creature Turritopsis dohrnii. Some more commonly refer to it as the “Benjamin Button jellyfish,” from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s curious fictional character.

Several Italian biologists picked up on this finding and published a paper about it in 1996 called, “Reversing the Life Cycle.”

Amazingly (or perhaps not), this paper was met by the academic-industrial-government-medical complex with deafening silence. It received no new research funding. It garnered zero attention from research institutes or biotech companies. Big pharma wasn’t interested. Even the U.S. government wouldn’t spend a dime on it–which might be a first.

Truly, this immortal jellyfish is one of the greatest discoveries–and cover-ups–of all time.

(Of course, you and I know all too well that the academic-government-industrial-medical complex covers up, or simply ignores, truly revolutionary scientific findings all the time.)

During the past quarter-century, this immortal jellyfish moved beyond the warm waters of the Mediterranean Sea. It now crops up in oceans all over the world. Apparently, it hitchhikes on ships that use seawater for ballast.

Marine-biologists have spotted it off the coasts of Japan, Florida, Panama, and Spain–repeating Ponce de Leon’s journeys in search of the “fountain of youth.” It appears to flourish, survive, and proliferate in every ocean in the world. (Perhaps the earth is evolving to contain a great immortal gelatinous consciousness.)

But scientists still don’t understand how it ages in reverse. And, as I mentioned earlier, research has been limited, given the indifference by the usual powers-that-be.

Today, just one scientist in the world is studying this particular jellyfish–62-year-old Shin Kubota at Kyoto University Marine Biological Laboratory. And unless this one Japanese scientist proves to be immortal himself, the secret of the jellyfish may remain hidden.

And that’s a shame, considering how much money we waste on anti-aging duds. The Human Genome Project, completed in 2003, was a multi-billion dollar “big science” project that the government whole-heartedly pursued and funded. A good thing did come out of it…and it may hold the key to getting the most out of the discovery of the immortal jellyfish.

Scientists working on the Human Genome project found a surprising similarity between human and jellyfish genes.

Humans only have about 21,000 genes that code the proteins that direct all of human anatomy and physiology. Oddly, chickens, fruit flies, and even round worms have about the same number. Jellyfish are remarkably similar–genome-wise.

Unfortunately, few scientists know how to study these organisms. So, we lack a good understanding of the implications of these similarities. For example, we don’t know how these similarities might help advance human medicine. If we knew more about the basic biology of common marine creatures, the prospects might be unlimited.

The ocean is full of corals, sponges, and sea urchins that have lived on the ocean floor for centuries. Of course, communities of corals have lived on the ocean floor for eons. Eventually, they built coral reefs, atolls, islands, and almost the entire state of Florida.

Thankfully, one group does have an interest in studying the mysteries of simple ocean creatures. (In addition to the sole Japanese researcher currently studying the Benjamin Button jellyfish, that is.) I’m talking about the scientists in the Department of Zoology at Pomona College, Claremont, California.

The NIH actually awarded the Zoology Department a five-year, $ 1.26 million grant to study the hydra, a marine creature that resembles the coral stage of the Benjamin Button jellyfish. Oddly, I wrote my very first science paper in middle school on the hydra.

Plus, I actually completed one of my undergraduate majors in this very department. So I’m glad to see the good thoughts still coming out of it.

Of course, this new funding comes out to $250,000 per year, which wouldn’t be nearly enough to even start a typical medical research study. So I hope they can make it all work on this shoestring budget.

Many scientists believe the mystery of life hides in these small, simple organisms. The New York Times article quotes a scientist who said, “If I studied cancer, the last thing I would study is cancer, if you take my point. I would not be studying thyroid tumors in mice. I’d be working on hydra.”

Here again, the hydra has essentially the same genes as human beings, with variations on the same themes.

It’s interesting to think of it this way…

Through evolution, humans grew more complex. And we gained the ability to contemplate mortality. But in the process, we lost the jellyfish’s secret to immortality.

Although, perhaps that’s not such a bad thing after all. Personally, I wouldn’t want to age in reverse. Growing older has many physical benefits. In fact, tomorrow I’ll tell you about six physical benefits of aging. As stated by Andrew Marvell, a 17th century English cavalier poet, “Thus, though we cannot make our sun stand still, yet we will make him run.”


1. “Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality?” New York Times ( 11/28/2012