For­ever young

Smith Journal - - Opinion - Writer James Shack­ell In­ter­preter Chris Poole Pho­tog­ra­pher Josh Rush­ing





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.


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

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