Written by Yirui Song
The idea of immortality often appears in religious, philosophical, or mythological contexts. Described as an infinite continuation of the soul or mind beyond the existence of the physical body. Taoism, for example, claims that it is achievable through dedication to certain practices and beliefs. But, we do not normally view immortality from a biological perspective. So, does it exist naturally?
In fact, it does. Scientists know that certain animals are capable of avoiding death or ageing. The ‘immortal’ jellyfish, does so by reversing their life cycle to an earlier stage. They activate this ability whenever they experience stress from their environment. Stress can be an injury, disease, or lack of nutrients.
Organisms with endless regenerative abilities, such as the flatworm, have a very high expression of FoxO genes. These genes control resistance to stress, metabolism, apoptosis (programmed cell death), and more.
Lobsters escape death for as long as possible by having unlimited telomerase, an enzyme that controls the length of telomeres. Telomeres are repeated sequences of DNA at the tips of chromosomes. By keeping long telomeres, they do not lose crucial DNA when replicating since telomeres get shorter after each replication. However, not all scientists agree that lobsters are immortal.
However, all the organisms above are only immortal in theory because they are susceptible to predation or disease.
Then, can humans harness immortality or, at least, longevity?
Mankind is not achieving immortality in the same way that immortality appears in nature. Rather, scientists are preserving the corpses of the deceased by freezing them in liquid nitrogen at -196 degrees Celsius. This process is called cryonic suspension and they freeze patients with the intention of reviving them in the future. That is, once we find a cure to their cause of death, assuming technology will allow their resurrection by then.
The Cryonics Institute, one of the only two providers of such services, has around 173 patients frozen in tanks. A challenge is making sure the revived have no damage to the brain and still retain all their memories.
The project Russia-2045 claims they will reach immortality in 25 years. By uploading our mind into a hologram avatar at the ends of our lives, we can continue existing digitally.
But, perhaps being able to live a long life is simpler than we all think. We can all live past 100 as long as we lead our lives with positive mindsets and healthy habits. Healthy habits include: not smoking, keeping a normal body mass index (BMI), staying physically active, and eating a nutritious diet.
It would be fascinating to see rebirth from cryonic suspension or the uploading of a human onto the cloud. However, I wonder if it is possible for humans to attain immortality in the same way as in nature? Could we produce large amounts of telomerase to lengthen our telomeres and delay ageing? Could we activate FoxO genes and possess nonstop regrowth? For all we know, humans could be immortal without having to put life on pause or lose our physical bodies.