When Will We Solve Death?


Originally posted here.

It’s been almost three months since I first read the article titled “Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality?” published in The New York Times on November 28th, 2012. I’ve thought about the article a lot since then— probably too much. The story is strange, playful, and could easily be the precursor to the next great Murakami novel. More than that, though, it’s opened my mind to the uncanny possibility of achieving human immortality based on some fairly sound scientific principles.

The gist of it goes like this: a very small, insular group of hydroid experts have devoted their lives to studying a species of jellyfish known for its ability to age in reverse. These jellyfish are the Benjamin Buttons of the deep seas, capable of reverting to an earlier stage of their life cycle and experiencing something of a rebirth in the presence of danger. No hyperbole here; in a stable environment, these animals can live forever.

The most ambitious (and eccentric) of these marine experts is Kyoto University’s Shin Kubota. He’s been working tirelessly to isolate the genes responsible for giving the species its regenerative principles. Doing so, he believes, will bring us ever closer to a much more idealistic goal— something he calls “ultimate life.” He’s confident that the answer to immortality is out there, or more specifically, that it’s tucked away in the genetic sequence of his subjects. The deeper question for Kubota is whether or not humans will be ready to receive such an onerous blessing.

If one day we do cross that threshold, well, it’s not exactly clear what happens after that.

It’s also not clear if Kubota is chasing a myth. Immortality is an aphrodisiac that’s been captivating our collective imagination for thousands and thousands of years, right up there with time travel and telekinesis. How Kubota’s medusas fit into that continuum is ambiguous at best.

But here’s what we do know: death is a problem, and humans are pretty good at solving problems. Not great, but good.

And how’s this for context: experts predict that the first human to reach the age of 150 years old will be born this year (2013).* That’s roughly double what the average life expectancy was in 1990, just a few decades ago. So how long until humans reach 200 or even 300 years old? And then what comes after that? Is there a limit to what can be achieved through scientific advancements, and if so, how far are we from finding it? Is immortality a realistic goal?

It’s certainly more realistic than I ever imagined. I always thought that to be immortal you had to lead a revolution or write an epic story. But then again, what do I know?

*I don’t have a source for this, but it was a question on Jeopardy the other night so it’s gotta be credible, right?