Scientists turn to lizards, whales, and more for tips on helping humans cheat death.
Man has long searched for the key to eternal life, and while the world of popular culture tells us that this quest is the folly of the obsessed and greedy, medical science has increasingly been turning to the animal kingdom for lessons in longevity. These five uniquely adapted creatures each hold a different secret to extended survival, and by studying their evolutionary quirks, maybe one day scientists can once and for all cure us puny humans of the genetic malfunction we call death.
Photo by Roman Klementschitz, Wien
The Naked Mole Rat
In 2013, Science journal crowned the naked mole rat “Vertebrate of the Year,” citing the animal’s extraordinarily long life span and amazing immunity to almost all forms of cancer. Despite looking like a cross between Nosferatu and your grandmother’s neck wattle, naked mole rats boast a number of amazing traits—they feel no pain through their skin, can run backward as fast as they can forward, and are socially more like bees or ants than other rodents. There are several theories as to why the burrowing mammals don’t grow tumors, and after a years-long international effort, a draft of the mole rat’s genome was finally made available to scientists and cancer researchers in 2011.
Photo by Cowenby
As pre-adolescent scamps all over the world can tell you, if you catch a lizard by the tail, the durned thing will break right off, and the animal will scurry away, unharmed. Lizards' ability to grow back entire severed appendages is the subject of a new study, examining the genetic mechanism behind reptile regeneration, and how understanding it can help ailing humans. Scientists have sequenced all the genes expressed during limb regrowth, unlocking the “recipe” for the process—and while we probably won’t be growing lost arms or legs back anytime soon, doctors are hoping the new information will help them treat conditions like spinal cord injuries and degenerative arthritis in the near future.
The Immortal Jellyfish
The Turritopsis dohrnii, or immortal jellyfish, made headlines when the world tuned in to the pioneering work of Shin Kubota, a lone, tireless crusader for the study of these squishy little miracles. Only about the size of a human fingernail, the jellyfish’s unique reverse-aging behavior was first observed in the late ‘80s—in response to trauma or structural damage, the creature actually reverts to its immature polyp stage, Benjamin-Buttoning its way to eventual rebirth and a brand new lease on life. Kubota, who hand feeds and sings to his colony of jellyfish, believes his work will have far-reaching effects for humanity. “Once we determine how the jellyfish rejuvenates itself, we should achieve very great things,” he told The New York Times in 2012. “My opinion is that we will evolve and become immortal ourselves.”
The Bowhead Whale
Shy, yet buxom and a bit flirtatious, the bowhead whale can weigh up to 200,000 pounds and uses its enormous, bony skull to crash through thick sheets of Arctic ice. It is also thought to be the longest living mammal on earth, with one bowhead male estimated to have reached the ripe old age of 211. Starting in the 1990s, whalers in Alaska began to find 19th-century jade and ivory spear tips, mementos of scraps with Moby Dick-era harpoonists, lodged in the carcasses of freshly killed bowheads. While the bowhead was previously thought to have a lifespan similar to that of other whales (60- 70 years) the discovery of these relics finally clued us in to just how long these cetaceans can actually survive. Ever since then, groups of longevity buffs, like the non-profit Methuselah Foundation, have been determined to find out what makes the bowhead tick and, if possible, bottle it for over-the-counter pharmaceutical sale.
Photo by Boštjan Burger
Lazy people everywhere rejoiced in 2010, when scientists discovered that the key to the relatively long life of the olm—which can survive up to 100 years, the current record for amphibians—stems from a lifelong dedication to not moving around very much. The nearly blind cave dweller, once believed to be the young offspring of dragons, can self-induce a kind of protracted hibernation when food is scarce, slowing its metabolism to a crawl and even digesting its own organs in extreme situations. Able to survive up to 10 years without eating, this salamander is thought to possibly hold the secret to suspended animation and, by extension, the technology necessary for ultra-long-distance missions through space.