Immortality: DNA’s Gordian Knot

Ask anyone from the 1920s if they ever thought that one day, billions of people around the world would have palm-sized devices in their hands that you could use to take pictures, make phone calls, read books and measure your health. People back then could never have envisioned technologies that can precisely track our location anywhere on the planet, or keep someone’s weakened heart beating like a healthy person’s, all with a tiny electrical jolt to the heart.

Human beings have solved thousands of problems that people only two or three hundred years ago would be beset with. We’ve put men on the moon and created nanostructures with individual atoms.

But there is one immutable, incontrovertible truth that we eventually must come to terms with, and all the technology and scientific developments over the years haven’t been able to change that.

Our own mortality.
So morbid, yet so poetic

The life expectancy of the average human being in the ancient world ranged from 30-35. Today, that number’s gone up to 71 years, and is even as high as 85 in some developed countries. But eventually, even with all the benefits of modern medicine, we cannot escape death.

Age is a simple enough concept to understand and study. Nearly cell in the body dies at some point and new cells take its place. To create new cells, an older cell needs to divide itself through a process called mitosis, and two new identical daughter cells are formed. Now, if DNA replication and cell division worked absolutely perfectly, new cells would be perfectly identical to old ones, constantly regenerating themselves and ensuring the human body doesn’t effectively age. But here’s the catch: cell division is almost never perfect.

Abnormal chromosome segregation in an elderly person’s skin cell

Let’s talk about DNA for a second. DNA is sort of like a program that tells the cells in your body how to function and carry out their usual routine. For this to happen without a hitch, the DNA strands need to be perfectly intact, and not damaged in any way. To make sure the ends of these strands don’t ‘fray’ like the ends of shoelaces, each strand of your DNA is capped with a protective layer called a telomere. This keeps chromosomes from getting damaged through wear and tear.

When cells regenerate, your chromosomes lose some of the telomeres protecting them. Fortunately, there’s an enzyme called telomerase that adds to the ends of the telomeres to keep them from shortening. But as the body grows older, less and less telomerase is generated in the body, and consequently, telomeres go on shortening. Eventually, it gets so short that it can’t do its job anymore. That’s when your DNA starts to get damaged.

The weird green bits are what I’m talking about

Damaged DNA means cells not only can’t replicate as well as they used to before, but they also don’t function as well or as efficiently. Cells deteriorate over time. They start failing. This leads to the body failing as several organs cease to work as well as they used to. There comes a point when the body can sustain no more of it. And then comes death.

Scientists haven’t been able to find a solution to counteract ageing, and even if they did, it would be quite a while before they could make it a standard (getting approval for testing on humans would be a daunting task). But from the looks of it, it seems nature has beaten man to the punch.

In the 1990s, marine biologists discovered a unique biological property of an already known species of jellyfish. The Turritopsis dohrnii, commonly referred to as the immortal jellyfish, was found to be able to regenerate its body cells and restore its youth again. In theory, the jellyfish could possibly go on repeating this process infinitely, and if that’s true, it would be the first species on the planet we know of that’s immortal.

Say what you want, but jellyfish have got to be the weirdest creatures on Earth

So that’s the key, then. All you need to do to keep yourself from growing old and wrinkled is to find some way to regenerate your cells and keep your chromosomes protected from damage. Perfect cell division would effectively mean an indefinite lifespan. But that’s the hardest part. Overcoming it effectively means we’d be holding the reins to Nature’s rambunctious chariot. We’d be the ‘kings of the world,’ as Alexander the Great once wished to be. Thing is, we’d still need the equivalent of Alexander’s sword to cut open the Gordian knot, destroying once and for all the barrier between human and god.

At this point, scientists’ best bet is to use nanobots to fix damaged DNA strands and monitor cell division. You’d just need to swallow a pill filled with microscopic robots designed to do just that, and your body would be good as new again in the matter of months.

Who knows? The Fountain of Youth might not be as improbable as you think

Humans have always been an insatiably ambitious species, always unsatisfied with what we have, always looking for new ways to make life easier, better to live. Older generations have ever lamented that their children and grandchildren have grown ‘soft’. I like to think we’ve grown smarter and learnt to put up with less. Why should we settle for anything when we can always reach for something better? That just isn’t what being human is meant to be, and it never will be.

And who wouldn’t want the option of getting more time on Earth? So much more time, in fact, that procrastination would never be a problem again, and you could catch up on all those Netflix shows you’ve been hearing are so great but just haven’t gotten around to watching. All you’d have to do is pick which one you want to start with.

Hey guys! Aneesh Bhargav here. If you like my work, please follow my blog and share it with all your friends! Let me know what you think in the comments! Hit me up on Twitter: @aneeshbhargav


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