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Giant Bell jellyfish in the ocean The jellyfish T. nutricula, similar in appearance to the giant bell jelly shown here, can repeat its life cycle by transforming from its adult stage to its child stage and back again. (Photo: Monterey Bay Aquarium/Randy Wilder)

An Animal That Can Live Forever

Scientists discover a type of jellyfish that can transform from adult to child and back again

By Zach Jones | June 29 , 2010

Some tortoises and whales are known to live for more than a century. Some people do too! But scientists have discovered a type of jellyfish that may be able to live forever.

The Turritopsis nutricula jellyfish can go back to polyp form, a jellyfish's childhood stage, after it has grown into an adult. In other words, these adult jellies can turn back into baby jellies and grow up all over again.

Researchers think this special jellyfish species can repeat its life cycle indefinitely. That means it's possible for these jellies to live forever by defying old age.

But T. nutricula cannot defy death entirely. Like other animals, they may be killed by diseases or predators. Still, the jellyfish are considered "biologically immortal" because the animals could live forever in a controlled environment.

How Do They Do It?

All living creatures are made up of millions of tiny cells, which are often called the "building blocks of life." Different cell types make different parts of an animal's body. But the T. nutricula can change one type of cell into another type of cell. That's called transdifferentiation.

Animals that can accomplish transdifferentiation are rare. There are a few animals that can regrow certain body parts. Salamanders, for example, can re-grow their limbs. But these jellies are the only animals known to regrow their entire bodies.

Scientists are fascinated by this discovery. Researchers are now studying how these creatures repeat this process over and over.

Growing in Numbers

The T. nutricula used to live only in the Caribbean. Now they can be found in every ocean in the world. Scientists believe that warmer waters have allowed the jellyfish to move beyond their natural range.

Creatures who move to areas they didn't inhabit before are called invasive species. Since these jellyfish don't die naturally, their population is growing quickly in their new habitats.

"We are looking at a worldwide silent invasion," says Dr. Maria Miglietta of the Smithsonian Tropical Marine Institute.

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