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28Nov 2012

First we get proof of heaven; now the secret of immortality.

Turritopsis nutricula medusa

Only a few weeks after Newsweek and Simon & Schuster gave us proof of heaven,  The New York Times now offers us immortality in the form of an article entitled "Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality?" It is now online and will appear as the cover story in the Dec. 2 New York Times Magazine.

The premise of the story, written by the novelist Nathaniel Rich, is that the unusual life cycle of a tiny sea creature called a hydrozoan could hold the key to human immortality. The organism, a species of Turritopsis, begins as a small polyp that grows to an adult about the size of a fingernail, when it resembles a jellyfish. In that form, it's referred to as a medusa. The process is analogous to what occurs when a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. But in this case, the process can also run backward: the adult can turn back into a polyp, from which form it can develop into an adult once again. That's where the idea of immortality comes from.

It's a fascinating creature. But the problem with this story is that much of what is reported is highly improbable, even unbelievable. And the writing is discursive to a fault. We learn far more than we need to, for example, about the principal researcher's avocation as a songwriter and karaoke singer. 

The article's biggest failing, however, is that the entire premise of the story is undermined in the middle of the piece and again in the last few grafs, with two revelations likely to leave readers flipping back to the beginning to figure out how they were so badly misled.

* * *

Rich begins by stoking readers' imaginations with a fevered description of the discovery of the creature:

"After more than 4,000 years — almost since the dawn of recorded time, when Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh that the secret to immortality lay in a coral found on the ocean floor — man finally discovered eternal life in 1988," Rich begins. It was found near the city of Rapallo, on the Italian Riviera, "where exactly one century earlier Friedrich Nietzsche conceived 'Thus Spoke Zarathustra': 'Everything goes, everything comes back; eternally rolls the wheel of being. Everything dies, everything blossoms again. . . .'”

There a snorkeling marine-biology student found a sea creature that "refused to die. It appeared to age in reverse, growing younger and younger until it reached its earliest stage of development, at which point it began its life cycle anew...This finding appeared to debunk the most fundamental law of the natural world — you are born, and then you die."

The student made this discovery in 1988 and then abandoned the research. An Italian scientific team pursued the finding and published a report on the creature's life cycle in 1996. The discovery "barely registered outside the academic world," Rich writes. But "we now know" that the rejuvenation is caused by environmental stress or some physical assault, and that the organism "undergoes cellular transdifferentiation." But "we still don't understand how it ages in reverse."

The story revolves around a highly eccentric Japanese scientist named Shin Kubota of Kyoto University. He works at a "damp, two-story concrete block" marine-biology laboratory "in a sleepy Japanese beach town" four hours south of Kyoto. He is said to be the only scientist in the world who cultivates the creature, known scientifically as a species of Turritopsis.

In their first phone call, he tells Rich, “Turritopsis application for human beings is the most wonderful dream of mankind. Once we determine how the jellyfish rejuvenates itself, we should achieve very great things. My opinion is that we will evolve and become immortal ourselves.”

Rich takes a paragraph break and then writes:

"I decided I better book a ticket to Japan."

Throughout the story, Rich suggests that Kubota, and now Rich, are the only two people in the world privy to the significance of Turritopsis. Kubota is, he writes, "our best chance for understanding this unique strand of biological immortality." 

Rich is puzzled that nobody else is studying this. "You might expect that biotech multinationals would vie to copyright its genome; that a vast coalition of research scientists would seek to determine the mechanisms by which its cells aged in reverse; that pharmaceutical firms would try to appropriate its lessons for the purposes of human medicine; that governments would broker international accords to govern the future use of rejuvenating technology. But none of this happened."

The explanation lies in the story itself. Rich writes that "many marine biologists are reluctant to make such grand claims about Turritopsis's promise for human medicine." Even one of the authors of the 1996 paper says, "I prefer to focus on a slightly more rational form of science."

It's unlikely, in this highly interconnected world, that a lone scientist in a small, out-of-the-way city in Japan is going to make an earth-shattering discovery without any contribution--or competition--from anyone else. Scientific breakthroughs are sometimes made by individuals in unlikely places, but it doesn't happen very often.

Rich thinks the lack of interest in Turritopsis arises because it is difficult to culture in the laboratory, and only Kubota is dedicated enough to bother.

At this point in the story, readers should be skeptical of Kubota and his claims. But we learn much more about him when Rich arrives in Shirahama, where Kubota lives. And what we learn isn't reassuring. 

Before we hear more about Kubota, however, we get four long grafs about Shirahama's eroding "crescent-shaped white-sand beach," its deteriorating sandstone arch, and its thriving salt-water hot springs, or onsen. None of this tells us anything about Turritopsis or immortality. Kubota, we now learn, visits a spring every morning. It "activates your metabolism and cleans away the dead skin," Kubota says. "It strongly contributes to longevity."

He is said to have published 52 scientific papers in 2011, "many based on observations he makes on a private beach" and "in a small harbor on the coastal road." That's a paper a week--and it's impossible for a lone scientist unless diary entries or blog posts are counted as scientific papers. Kubota's website lists 88 English papers published over the past 36 years.

At one point, Rich writes that Kubota spends at least three hours a day feeding his immortal hydrozoans. Elsewhere, he writes that "it is a full-time job caring for the immortal jellyfish."

When Kubota travels to scientific conferences, he takes his jellyfish with him in a portable cooler. We are not told why; evidently nobody else in the lab is able to care for them. In his office, 50 toothbrushes are "crammed into a cup on the rusting aluminum sink." (Aluminum doesn't rust.) Kubota is also a songwriter, whose songs are featured on Karaoke machines across Japan. (Rich quotes Kubota's lyrics at considerable length.) Every night Kubota sings for at least two hours in a karaoke bar. 

One wonders when he has time to do research. 

Another small irritant in this story is that Rich appears to have the name of the organism wrong. I referred to it above as a species of Turritopsis, and I did so for a reason--because it's unclear what species we're talking about. Rich calls it Turritopsis dohrnii. Some references in Google do, too. But most seem to say that Turritopsis nutricula is the correct scientific name--including the 1996 paper that Rich mentions. I would need to consult with a few experts to sort this out, but Rich and the Times should have done that for us.

Rich has a few quotes from other scientists about the similarities between humans and jellyfish. Kevin J. Peterson, a researcher at Dartmouth College, tells Rich that "there's a shocking amount of genetic similarity between jellyfish and human beings...From a genetic perspective, apart from the fact that we have two genome duplications, 'we look like a damn jellyfish.'" I can't imagine what Peterson means by that. Do we resemble jellyfish more than we resemble mice or monkeys, both of which are commonly used as proxies for humans in scientific research?

Then, halfway through the story, Peterson gives us the first of the two revelations that, in my view, completely undermine the premise of the story. His contention: the kind of immortality seen in Turritopsis is far from unique. “Immortality might be much more common than we think,” Peterson says. “There are sponges out there that we know have been there for decades. Sea-urchin larvae are able to regenerate and continuously give rise to new adults.” He continues: “This might be a general feature of these animals. They never really die.”

But were we not told that this obscure organism, and its lone scientific pursuer, were our best chance at understanding immortality? Now we learn that Turritopsis is not unique. 

Next, we hear from some researchers who doubt that Turritopsis has much if anything to teach us about human immortality. We hear more about Kubota's life. Kubota tells Rich, "I want to be young again. I want to become miracle immortal man." He tells Rich we are intelligent enough to achieve biological immortality, "but we don't deserve it....spiritual change is needed." These are not comments a scientist would make. They are not supported by data. If Kubota wants to encourage spiritual change and to make himself young again, then something else is going on here.

Then we get the second of the two revelations that undermine the premise of the story, leaving it in tatters.

Some 6,000 words into a 6,500-word story, in the fourth-last graf, Rich writes that the "immortality" of the jellyfish "is, to a certain degree, a question of semantics."

Turritopsis, we now find out, is not immortal:

“That word ‘immortal’ is distracting,” says James Carlton, [a] professor of marine sciences at Williams. “If by ‘immortal’ you mean passing on your genes, then yes, it’s immortal. But those are not the same cells anymore. The cells are immortal, but not necessarily the organism itself.”

Humans pass on genes, too. Does that mean we are already immortal? That is, in fact, the principal thing organisms do--pass on their genes. (And the quote itself is confusing. Carlton says the regenerated creature does not have "the same cells anymore," but then he says "the cells are immortal." Which is it?) 

The disclosure that immortality is being used in some special sense makes everything we've read meaningless. The semantic distinction means we are not talking about immortality at all--merely about reproducing. Far from being a potential medical breakthrough, the "immortality" of Turritopsis is nothing more than a biological oddity. Kubota is not on the verge of a medical breakthrough.

It's clear that Rich was seduced by the romance of the story. Kubota is indeed a fascinating character and a prime candidate for a profile. What is missing here is a proper sense of journalistic detachment and skepticism. Kubota seems like a genial fellow, and Rich clearly likes and admires him. There's nothing wrong with that, except that Rich makes the fatal mistake of  swallowing everything Kubota tells him. And when Rich briefly quotes critics, he seems to suggest that they dissent only because they do not understand Kubota's work.

It's conceivable that hundreds or thousands of Times readers will get in touch with Kubota, desperately trying to save a dying parent, or a spouse, or themselves. They will come away empty-handed. But whether or not that happens, the Times has done its readers a disservice. The story is festooned with warning flags. Why didn't anyone see them?

-Paul Raeburn




I know this is an old post but I just now came accross it. I'd like some clarification. Is it accurate to say that the each time the new jellyfish is not the same jellyfish it once was? It is a new and different jellyfish each time that just happens to be forming from recycled cells? Is that accurate?

For more on this, see the comments of the scientist-blogger Jonathan Eisen, who gave the story a "twisted tree of life" award:


The author duly notes the "road closed" signs erected by other scientists and blows past them in pursuit of the eccentric. And yet I think this criticism largely misses the point. To suggest that the author undermines his premise depends on what you think the premise is. Given the forum (the NYT magazine, not a journal), the author (a novelist), and the style (novelistic), I was in for a good read, not scientific discovery.

That there is disagreement among scientists, that Kubota may be an unreliable narrator, that the subject turns out not to be everything it appears to be (and let's be honest, if you really thought a vulnerable creature among predators was immortal...), just made the story more intriguing. It ultimately says more about humans than jellyfish, and for the audience that's not a bad thing. 

This wasn't a story devoted to science but to storytelling, as the NYT magazine should be. 

I am one of the authors of the 1996 paper. The species was identified as Turritopsis nutricula but then it was established that T. nutricula is an Atlantic species that was considered as identical with the Mediterranean one. It is not, and a species had been described in the past that was synonimized with nutricula, whereas it was then considered as valid. So Turritopsis nutricula became Turritopsis dohrnii. nutricula is the Atlantic species, dohrnii is the Mediterranean species. This happens all the time, in zoological nomenclature. We did not speak about immortality, in the paper. We spoke about ontogeny reversal. Ontogeny is the series of steps that start with a zygote and arrive to the mature adult. Usually adults reproduce and then, sooner or later, they die. The hdyrozoans, with which Paul Raeburn is not very familiar with, start their life as a planula larva that settles on the bottom and gives rise to a hydroid colony. The colony buds off tiny jellyfish that, in zoological jargon, are also called medusae. The medusae are either male or female, they reproduce and then die. Reproduction gives rise to a planula that then becomes another hydroid colony, and the cycle starts again. T. dohrnii medusae, if subjected to sublethal stress, become a ball of tissue, their cells de-differentiate and then re-differentiate, and they transform into a hydroid. The previous stage of development. As I say in the article, it is as if a butterfly (the jellyfish) can re-organize its cells and go back to a caterpillar stage (the hydroid). So, ontogeny is reversed. This can be produced in the laboratory all the times you want. And we described the phenomenon in that article. Kubota is keeping this animal in the lab, and he succeeds in having the medusa going back to polyp, but then it succeeds in having that polyp producing new medusae, that can go again back to polyp, and so on. So he is able to re-iterate the process. 

When I communicated about this to the press office of my university, the journalist used the word immortality. We did not. And Turritopsis became the immortal jellyfish. I am a friend of Shin Kubota, and I can say that he is very good at rearing jellyfish. Which is not the solution of human immortality, as suggested in the article. Anyway, these cells that de-differentiate and then re-differentiate into new cell types and re-build a former developmental stage, do perform a strange deed indeed. The next step is to investigate the molecular machinery that regulates these phenomena. 

Jellyfish do have many genes in common with humans. For instance their PAX genes, that start the process of producing eyes, are very similar to our PAX genes. And this led Walter Gehring to postulate a single origin for eyes, based on identical genetic switch for their construction. The first animals that evolved eyes are just jellyfish. 

So, whereas the critique to the article of the NYT is sound under some respects, some of the raised doubts are simply due to ignorance of the described phenomenon by Paul Raeburn. Both journalists did not make a careful account of what they were talking about. 

Maybe this is a too specialized topic. But how many of you really did understand what a Higgs boson is? I have read so many accounts and none of them led me to understand what it is. I became quickly lost in the meanders of jargon. Just as you might be with the jargon of this commentary. 

I was hoping someone at Tracker would tackle this--can I just say, ditto Paul. Such a bizzare story and, honestly, given how few times the Sunday magazine will likely devote that much room to science, sad that this used up one of the slots.


Right on Paul. I read the piece with several of the same frustrations you did - although I found the tangents into local culture and the hero's eccentric passions interesting mainly because they seemed factually accurate.

   Seems to me this is not immortality. It is better described as reproduction. The oddity is merely that the parent dies before the offspring is up and about. Imagine a hen that drops off its feathers, its wings are reabsorbed, its feet withdraw, then it collapses into a gloppy chicken soup in which sits an egg. The egg hatches, a chick comes out. It's a clone of the first. But the first is gone, not immortal. That seems quite similar to this little jelly fish thing that withers away until all that is left is equivalent to its egg or womb. What emerges is a newborn.

Very smart analysis, Paul. And a lot of fun to read.

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