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This Jellyfish Can Live Forever. Its Genes May Tell Us How.

A new study followed as a Turritopsis dohrnii rejuvenated itself, uncovering developmental patterns for further inquiry.

A juvenile medusa-stage specimen of the Turritopsis dohrnii jellyfish.,Maria Pascual-Torner

Fleets of tiny translucent umbrellas, each about the size of a lentil, waft through the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. These miniature jellyfish, known as Turritopsis dohrnii, wave and grasp with their pale tentacles, bringing plankton to their mouths like many other jellyfish species adrift in the glowing water.

But they have a secret that sets them apart from the average sea creature: When their bodies are damaged, the mature adults, known as medusas, can turn back the clock and transform back into their youthful selves. They shed their limbs, become a drifting blob and morph into polyps, twiggy growths that attach to rocks or plants. Gradually, the medusa buds off the polyp once again, rejuvenated. While a predator or an injury can kill T. dohrnii, old age does not. They are, effectively, immortal.

Now, in a paper published Monday in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists have taken a detailed look at the jellyfish’s genome, searching for the genes that control this remarkable process. By examining the genes active at different phases of the life cycle, the researchers got a glimpse of the delicate orchestration of the jellyfish’s rejuvenation.