The Jellyfish that Could Hold the Secret to Immortality

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Nearly 25 years ago, a young marine biologist stumbled upon a jellyfish that refused to die. The jellyfish would grow older, but when it became sick or suffered an injury, it would age in reverse until it reached its earliest stage of development, at which point it would begin its life cycle all over again. The so-called "immortal jellyfish," also nicknamed the "Benjamin Button jellyfish," could hold the secret to immortality. 

Nathaniel Rich is a novelist and essayist. He writes about the jellyfish, and profiles the Japanese scientist who has devoted his career to studying it, in The New York Times Magazine article "Superhero of the Sea."

"It does seem, from a human perspective, absolutely miraculous," Rich says of this immortal creature. "My original interest was the jellyfish, but as I met Kubota, I actually became more fascinated in him. He's a fantastic, strange, heroic figure."

Shin Kubota is obsessed with immortality. Specifically, he wants to be twenty years old again. "He showed me a picture in his study of him at 20 as the sort of ideal form that Shin Kubota should take," Rich says. Though he has gone as far as one can go in terms of observing the species, a geneticist would have to take over the work in order to discover the exact mechanism that allows the jellyfish to age backwards.

And it is not only that Kubota is the only scientist working on this particular jellyfish. Rich says that part of what he discovered in writing this piece, is that small organisms in general are understudied.

"There are way more experts studying larger species than there are smaller species," Rich says. "Perhaps that comes out of a child's fascination with whales and dolphins perhaps more than little amoebas." But it is possible that there are any number of small organisms with this ability.