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Deities in religion and myth live as the only beings capable of sustaining eternal life. For the rest of existence, death is considered inevitable. Although avoidable external forces account for the majority of deaths, aging remains the only killer considered unavoidable. Aging brings some positive changes, such as increased strength and mobility. Other changes, however, negatively affect physical and mental capacity. What if scientists discovered the secret to controlling the aging process? As the search for special, unusual organisms increases, this strange fantasy could potentially become a reality.
Some life forms have the ability to escape aging and fight death through biological processes. Hydra, a very simple multicellular organism, provides an example of such a life form. Despite its small size, less than an inch long, the hydra’s uncanny power to regenerate tissue can be beneficial to humans. “The hydra is in a constant, steady state, and from it you can learn the basic biological principles of higher animals,” said Richard Campbell, a professor and researcher of developmental and cell biology at the University of California, Irvine.
The process of flowering, which takes the place of mating in these organisms, may allow the Hydra, a simple polyp, to achieve immortality. With budding, a type of asexual reproduction, offspring develop from part of the parent. The Hydra thus derives its apt name from the “Lernaean Hydra” of Greek mythology, a multi-headed creature capable of replacing a lost head with three more in its place.
Similar to the Lernaean Hydra, the Hydra does not die easily due to its regenerative ability. This process makes it similar to another organism that can avoid aging: the planarian flatworm. Both organisms can regenerate large amounts of tissue from a relatively small portion of the original organism.
The fact that stem cells become unable to reproduce or multiply with age causes negative effects of aging in humans. A Hydra’s stem cells, however, remain permanently active during the flowering process, allowing it to avoid aging altogether. Research from the University of Kiel has shown that the FoxO gene allows a Hydra’s stem cells to remain active throughout its life. “Surprisingly, our search for the gene that makes Hydra immortal led us to the so-called FoxO gene,” said Anna-Marei Böhm, a PhD student at the University of Kiel.
Surprisingly, the FoxO gene also causes aging in humans. “Our research group showed for the first time that there is a direct link between the FoxO gene and aging,” said Thomas Bosch from the University of Kiel. Because humans and Hydra share the same gene responsible for aging, Hydra may become critical in the future study of human anti-aging processes.
Surprisingly, organisms other than the Hydra flatworm and the planarian have immortal abilities. A microscopic organism classified as an extremophile can accomplish more than just escaping death by aging. The tardigrade, more commonly referred to as the “water bear” or “musk pig”, has the ability to survive in extreme conditions, such as intense heat exceeding the boiling point of water at temperatures just slightly above absolute zero. In addition to bitter temperatures, the tardigrade can survive pressures stronger than those in the deepest ocean trenches and can live 10 years without food or water. Furthermore, in 2007 the tardigrade became the first organism to survive in the vacuum of space.
How can the latecomer stay under these circumstances? Whenever a tardigrade comes into contact with these extreme conditions, it goes into a sleep state called cryptobiosis. In the study of biology, there are several different types of cryptobiotic responses. These types include anhydrobiosis, a response to water scarcity; anoxybiosis, a response to lack of oxygen; chemobiosis, a response to nearby harmful toxins; cryobiosis, a response to low temperatures; and osmobiosis, a response to a high amount of solute in a solution in which an organism lives.
The strange nature of the tardigrade allows it to undergo every known type of cryptobiosis! When undergoing cryptobiosis, the tardigrade does not appear to age and can rehydrate at any time and continue to roam the land in essentially any available habitat. Compared to Hydra, tardigrades have more features in common with humans. In How to Find Tardigrades, Michael Shaw said, “… they are similar to us in some ways. They have a mouth, an alimentary tract, and they eat food and spit it out like we do.”
Apparently, the techniques used by potentially immortal organisms work differently. Therefore, the research of different organisms can become useful to the human race in many ways. For example, research in Hydra may allow scientists to modify the FoxO gene to completely stop the negative effects of aging. However, Tardigrade research is more likely to help develop ways to preserve living tissue for long periods of time.
Turritopsis dohrnii, nicknamed the “immortal jellyfish”, has the ability to defeat aging in a special way. It can essentially transform from an “adult” to a young jellyfish when needed. One might describe its aging process as the opposite of that of humans, which may be useful in helping humans maintain self-sufficiency throughout their lives. “Increasing human lifespan makes no sense, it is ecological nonsense. What we can expect and work on is to improve the quality of life in our final stages,” said Stefano Piraino from the University of Salento.
Another organism, the lobster, has a relatively backward aging cycle similar to that of the immortal jellyfish. Immortality in lobsters may seem impossible, but lobsters actually become more functional as they age. They grow by molting and become more fertile, but do not return to a youthful state like the immortal jellyfish. “These species certainly still die. They get disease, get hurt or hunted. But unlike humans, they don’t die as a result of their metabolism – there doesn’t seem to be a lifespan built into their cells,” said biologist Simon Watt.
Biological immortality also defines cells that the “Hayflick limit” does not affect. The Hayflick limit indicates the amount of cell division that will occur until the cells become unable to divide. HeLa cells, the cancer cells of the late Henrietta Lacks, represent a famous example of cells described as biologically immortal. This example of immortality may reveal new ways to make cells divide continuously for life, similar to the cells of a Hydra.
Immortality may seem like a divine power too powerful for life on earth. As it turns out, evolution has produced some organisms that can carefully achieve immortality. With intensive research into these organisms, the ability to prevent the debilitating effects of aging while exacerbating its positive effects may become possible in the not-too-distant future.
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