COULD A TINY JELLYFISH HOLD THE SECRET TO ETERNAL LIFE? MARINE BIOLOGIST SHIN KUBOTA THINKS SO. AND HE’S
GOT THE SCIENCE – AND KARAOKE SONGS – TO PROVE IT.
BESIDES A SOLITARY SINGER AND AN OLD LADY POLISHING GLASSES BEHIND THE BAR, THE SHIRAHAMA KARAOKE LOUNGE IS EMPTY.
On the stage, a honeyed mezzobaritone croons a familiar tune:
I am a jellyfish
I am very small
But I can do a thing that people can’t do
I can become young again
Just when I think, “Oh no, this is the end!” I become a polyp
One! Two! Three!
The woman has heard this track before, though she’s one of the few. Every night at exactly 10pm, Dr Shin Kubota of Japan’s Seto Marine Biological Laboratory comes here to perform this song, one of many that he composed himself. Suddenly the mystery of the empty bar becomes clear.
Even if there were a crowd, it wouldn’t be hard to find Kubota: he’s the guy wearing a kneelength white lab coat, red gloves, bulbous, wraparound sunglasses, and a velvet jellyfish hat. “Singing is a way of saying with extreme brevity what’s in your heart,” he explains. “I write simple songs. And yes, most of them are about jellyfish.” Tonight’s serenade is dedicated to a tiny, innocuous white blob about the size of your pinky fingernail. Its Latin name is Turritopsis dohrnii, or T. dohrnii, but most scientists – Kubota included – prefer the common moniker: the Immortal Jellyfish.
The story of this miraculous blob, and Kubota’s quest to harness its secrets, begins far away from this sleepy beachside town in Wakayama prefecture, Japan. It begins on the Italian Riviera in 1988, when a German biology student named Christian Sommer grabbed his snorkel and plankton net, and dived into the waters off Portofino. Sommer was searching for hydrozoa, a class of marine animal that begins life as a coral-like ‘polyp’ before evolving into a jellyfish. But what he found shook the very foundations of biology. Or at least, it should have.
Of the hundreds of jellyfish he pulled from the water that summer, the young German noticed one that was doing something very peculiar. Or rather, not doing something: it wasn’t dying. Where other species would grow and die over the course of their short lifespans, this one refused to. In fact, every time it appeared on the verge of death, Sommer watched, dumbfounded, as it miraculously began ageing backwards into a polyp, before beginning its life cycle all over again.
Sommer was stumped – as was the scientific community. It was another eight years before a group of biologists in Genoa realised the true significance of the species that became known as T. dohrnii. In 1996, they published a paper titled ‘Reversing the Life Cycle’, which speculated that because T. dohrnii could age backwards, like a chicken shrinking into an egg, it could “achieve potential immortality” (forgoing any unfortunate setbacks, like being eaten). If jellyfish could do this, some started to wonder, did that mean humans could too?
It might seem strange that the discovery of an immortal being in the 1980s didn’t generate more widespread fame, wonder and – not to put too cynical a point on it – commercial exploitation. Surely in a world plagued by the constant threat of death, the discovery of an animal that doesn’t die would be big news? And yet, over 20 years later, few people outside the jellyfish community have heard of
T. dohrnii, let alone reckoned with the fact that death is apparently an evolutionary option.
Why the lack of fanfare? The reason, some argue, boils down to speciesism. A jellyfish has no recognisable sensory organs, no brains and no heart (let alone much of a personality). It’s not a giant leap to imagine them bobbing in pools of liquid methane on distant planets. So when an intelligent person hears that a jellyfish is immortal, it’s easy to dismiss that information as part of the creature’s essential mysteriousness, the same way you can dismiss the fact that gravity warps the fabric of space-time: interesting information, perhaps, but hard to relate to your own life. But things might be different if we could see a bit of ourselves in the jellyfish’s inscrutable blobbyness. Which is where Kubota comes into the picture.
Kubota and T. dohrnii first crossed paths in 2000, when the marine biologist was visiting Italy. As soon as he laid eyes on the tiny creature, Kubota was seized by a quiet yet powerful mania. An immortal animal!
This was something wholly new to science. He wanted others to share his obsession, and decided singing songs about the creatures might make them more relatable. The jellyfish hat? Well, let’s chalk that up to whimsy.
But as Kubota quickly discovered, there was another reason the Immortal Jellyfish had stayed out of the public eye. Despite being able to live forever in the wild, T. dohrnii are supremely, maddeningly difficult to grow in captivity. Their water must be perfectly filtered, temperature controlled to within a few degrees, with just the right levels of saline. They only eat dried brine shrimp eggs, which often need to be sliced by hand under a microscope. The liquid in the petri dish must also be in constant circulation, to stop algae forming and producing lethal ammonia. So far, Kubota is the only person in the world who has managed to breed Immortal Jellyfish in captivity. “Anyone can get a polyp and produce a jellyfish,” he says – it’s keeping them going that’s the challenge. “I’m up to 14 lifecycles.” That’s 13 more than anyone else.
Kubota has cared for these jellyfish for three hours a day, every day, for the last 15 years. When he travels overseas for conferences, the jellyfish tag along with him in a special cooler box. Of course, this fanatical, round-the-clock care comes at a price. Kubota separated from his wife a few years ago, and there’s a sense that the jellyfish have slowly multiplied to fill every corner of his waking mind. That, and the notion of immortality. Like many people approaching their 70s, Kubota’s body isn’t what it used to be: his eyesight is fading, which makes his work difficult. Easing into his golden years isn’t an attractive prospect. “I want to be young again,” he says.
Like his jellyfish, Kubota is a creature of routine. At seven every morning he walks through the pre-dawn gloom to a beach near his house and throws rocks into the sea. “I aim for the driftwood out in the bay,” he says. “It’s important for my mental health. When the rock hits that bit of driftwood, that sound is very good for the brain.” At 8:30am he drives to Muronoyu, a local onsen where Japanese emperors have gently pruned for over 1000 years. Most Japanese would never take a morning onsen; it’s something reserved for the end of a long day. But Kubota bathes here twice daily, believing the hot water will help him live longer. At 10am he drives the 15 minutes to his office at the Seto Marine Biological Laboratory, where his orderliness temporarily gives way.
IT’S NOT A GIANT LEAP TO IMAGINE IMMORTAL JELLYFISH BOBBING IN POOLS OF LIQUID METHANE ON DISTANT PLANETS.
Kubota’s lab is famously messy: a chest-high cabinet blocks the doorway, and every surface is crammed with stacks of paper slipping and shifting like continents, odd seashells, technical jellyfish schematics, crab claws and bits of coral. “It’s much better for me to live in chaos,” he says, laughing. “My office is like all the things that wash up on the sand. Only I know where the treasures are.” And there is treasure here, if you know where to look. In a corner of Kubota’s office is a small refrigerator. And inside the refrigerator, bobbing silently in a dozen cold petri dishes, is the world’s only captive population of immortal animals. Turritopsis dohrnii.
The polyps look like small sprigs of dill – delicate fronds that sprout ‘medusas’, or the more familiar, bell-shaped jellyfish. For most jellyfish, the medusa is the final stage of the life cycle. They produce eggs or sperm, which combine to form new polyps, then they die. Kubota actually feels a secret affinity towards these ‘traditional’ jellyfish. “There’s something beautiful about death,” he admits. “That’s the samurai way, to die at the height of your powers.” He pauses, searching for another metaphor. “The cherry blossom falls when it’s at its most beautiful.”
Of course, T. dohrnii doesn’t fall, which is why Kubota and a few other scientists believe it might hold the clue to our own mortality. Cracking that genetic code is Kubota’s quest. “That’s the ultimate dream of mankind, isn’t it?” he says. “Imagine all the things we could learn!” Still, he’s under no illusions about the challenges ahead. After decades of study, scientists are still unsure how the jellyfish ages in reverse. “It’s a product of how few people are doing the research,” Kubota sighs. “If I had a team of international scientists working on this, it would progress much faster.”
Unfortunately, Kubota and his assistants are among the few scientists actively studying the Immortal Jellyfish. By and large, marine biologists are a sensible lot. They deal in science, not dreams, and most of them aren’t willing to stake their reputations on far-fetched notions of jellyfish-based immortality. Still, he’s not the only academic working on making death redundant. In 2013, Google launched Calico, a research company charged with disrupting the ageing process. To that end they’re currently studying the “mortality curves” of naked mole rats, while a slew of other companies with names like Human Longevity Inc. are busy sequencing genomes to extend the average human lifespan. “Sixty to seventy trillion dollars of wealth is held in the hands of people over 60,” says Longevity Inc’s founder Dr Peter Diamandis. “How much would they spend for an extra 10,
20, 30 years of healthy life? It’s a huge potential marketplace.”
That kind of lucrative, Silicon Valley thinking isn’t really Kubota’s game – you don’t compose 46 songs about an obscure jellyfish for the money. Kubota is driven by something else, and whatever that something else may be, it’s powerful.
Right now the doctor reckons he’s about 20 years away from cracking T. dohrnii, and he’s racing against the clock to make his goal. But even if he is able to unlock the jellyfish’s secret in his lifetime, a bigger question remains: what would this kind of immortality actually look like in humans? The answer might disappoint anyone looking to live forever. According to most scientists who’ve examined T. dohrnii, it’s unlikely that memories would remain intact during the cellular change.
You’d be a genetic duplicate, but a different you. Which poses a philosophical problem: are you really immortal if you can’t remember your past ‘lives’? From your ego’s point of view, rebirth would be no different to death.
Kubota is a happy to leave those questions to the philosophers. For him, T. dohrnii doesn’t just represent immortality; it represents faith. He believes he’ll live forever – or die trying. Curiously, he’s pensive about whether this would actually make him happy. “The longer you live, the more experiences you have, the more sadness you have,” he says. Perhaps it’s memory, rather than mortality, that is life’s real burden.
There is a final verse to Kubota’s most famous jellyfish song. He sings it sometimes on the beach, when the sun rises over the water, and the rock hits the driftwood and makes a sound that’s very good for the brain.
My name is the Immortal Jellyfish and I’m about to become a polyp again What will I do this time around?
Humans only get one life
But I can keep living forever
I can live without any regrets