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After Proof of Heaven, Now The New York Times Gives Us the Gift of Immortality

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Only a few weeks after Newsweek and Simon & Schuster gave us proof of heaven,  The New York Times now offers us immortality in the form of an article entitled "Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality?" It is now online and will appear as the cover story in the Dec. 2 New York Times Magazine.

The premise of the story, written by the novelist Nathaniel Rich, is that the unusual life cycle of a tiny sea creature called a hydrozoan could hold the key to human immortality. The organism, a species of Turritopsis, begins as a small polyp that grows to an adult about the size of a fingernail, when it resembles a jellyfish. In that form, it's referred to as a medusa. The process is analogous to what occurs when a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. But in this case, the process can also run backward: the adult can turn back into a polyp, from which form it can develop into an adult once again. That's where the idea of immortality comes from.

It's a fascinating creature. But the problem with this story is that much of what is reported is highly improbable, even unbelievable. And the writing is discursive to a fault. We learn far more than we need to, for example, about the principal researcher's avocation as a songwriter and karaoke singer. 

The article's biggest failing, however, is that the entire premise of the story is undermined in the middle of the piece and again in the last few grafs, with two revelations likely to leave readers flipping back to the beginning to figure out how they were so badly misled.

* * *

Rich begins by stoking readers' imaginations with a fevered description of the discovery of the creature:

"After more than 4,000 years — almost since the dawn of recorded time, when Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh that the secret to immortality lay in a coral found on the ocean floor — man finally discovered eternal life in 1988," Rich begins. It was found near the city of Rapallo, on the Italian Riviera, "where exactly one century earlier Friedrich Nietzsche conceived Thus Spoke Zarathustra: 'Everything goes, everything comes back; eternally rolls the wheel of being. Everything dies, everything blossoms again. . . .'”

There a snorkeling marine-biology student found a sea creature that "refused to die. It appeared to age in reverse, growing younger and younger until it reached its earliest stage of development, at which point it began its life cycle anew...This finding appeared to debunk the most fundamental law of the natural world — you are born, and then you die."

The student made this discovery in 1988 and then abandoned the research. An Italian scientific team pursued the finding and published a report on the creature's life cycle in 1996. The discovery "barely registered outside the academic world," Rich writes. But "we now know" that the rejuvenation is caused by environmental stress or some physical assault, and that the organism "undergoes cellular transdifferentiation." But "we still don't understand how it ages in reverse."

The story revolves around a highly eccentric Japanese scientist named Shin Kubota of Kyoto University. He works at a "damp, two-story concrete block" marine-biology laboratory "in a sleepy Japanese beach town" four hours south of Kyoto. He is said to be the only scientist in the world who cultivates the creature, known scientifically as a species of Turritopsis.

In their first phone call, he tells Rich, “Turritopsis application for human beings is the most wonderful dream of mankind. Once we determine how the jellyfish rejuvenates itself, we should achieve very great things. My opinion is that we will evolve and become immortal ourselves.”

Rich takes a paragraph break and then writes:

"I decided I better book a ticket to Japan."

Throughout the story, Rich suggests that Kubota, and now Rich, are the only two people in the world privy to the significance of Turritopsis. Kubota is, he writes, "our best chance for understanding this unique strand of biological immortality." 

Rich is puzzled that nobody else is studying this. "You might expect that biotech multinationals would vie to copyright its genome; that a vast coalition of research scientists would seek to determine the mechanisms by which its cells aged in reverse; that pharmaceutical firms would try to appropriate its lessons for the purposes of human medicine; that governments would broker international accords to govern the future use of rejuvenating technology. But none of this happened."

The explanation lies in the story itself. Rich writes that "many marine biologists are reluctant to make such grand claims about Turritopsis's promise for human medicine." Even one of the authors of the 1996 paper says, "I prefer to focus on a slightly more rational form of science."

It's unlikely, in this highly interconnected world, that a lone scientist in a small, out-of-the-way city in Japan is going to make an earth-shattering discovery without any contribution--or competition--from anyone else. Scientific breakthroughs are sometimes made by individuals in unlikely places, but it doesn't happen very often.

Rich thinks the lack of interest in Turritopsis arises because it is difficult to culture in the laboratory, and only Kubota is dedicated enough to bother.

At this point in the story, readers should be skeptical of Kubota and his claims. But we learn much more about him when Rich arrives in Shirahama, where Kubota lives. And what we learn isn't reassuring. 

Before we hear more about Kubota, however, we get four long grafs about Shirahama's eroding "crescent-shaped white-sand beach," its deteriorating sandstone arch, and its thriving salt-water hot springs, or onsen. None of this tells us anything about Turritopsis or immortality. Kubota, we now learn, visits a spring every morning. It "activates your metabolism and cleans away the dead skin," Kubota says. "It strongly contributes to longevity."

He is said to have published 52 scientific papers in 2011, "many based on observations he makes on a private beach" and "in a small harbor on the coastal road." That's a paper a week--and it's impossible for a lone scientist unless diary entries or blog posts are counted as scientific papers. Kubota's website lists 88 English papers published over the past 36 years.

At one point, Rich writes that Kubota spends at least three hours a day feeding his immortal hydrozoans. Elsewhere, he writes that "it is a full-time job caring for the immortal jellyfish."

When Kubota travels to scientific conferences, he takes his jellyfish with him in a portable cooler. We are not told why; evidently nobody else in the lab is able to care for them. In his office, 50 toothbrushes are "crammed into a cup on the rusting aluminum sink." (Aluminum doesn't rust.) Kubota is also a songwriter, whose songs are featured on Karaoke machines across Japan. (Rich quotes Kubota's lyrics at considerable length.) Every night Kubota sings for at least two hours in a karaoke bar. 

One wonders when he has time to do research. 

Another small irritant in this story is that Rich appears to have the name of the organism wrong. I referred to it above as a species of Turritopsis, and I did so for a reason--because it's unclear what species we're talking about. Rich calls it Turritopsis dohrnii. Some references in Google do, too. But most seem to say that Turritopsis nutricula is the correct scientific name--including the 1996 paper that Rich mentions. I would need to consult with a few experts to sort this out, but Rich and the Times should have done that for us.

Rich has a few quotes from other scientists about the similarities between humans and jellyfish. Kevin J. Peterson, a researcher at Dartmouth College, tells Rich that "there's a shocking amount of genetic similarity between jellyfish and human beings...From a genetic perspective, apart from the fact that we have two genome duplications, 'we look like a damn jellyfish.'" I can't imagine what Peterson means by that. Do we resemble jellyfish more than we resemble mice or monkeys, both of which are commonly used as proxies for humans in scientific research?

Then, halfway through the story, Peterson gives us the first of the two revelations that, in my view, completely undermine the premise of the story. His contention: the kind of immortality seen in Turritopsis is far from unique. “Immortality might be much more common than we think,” Peterson says. “There are sponges out there that we know have been there for decades. Sea-urchin larvae are able to regenerate and continuously give rise to new adults.” He continues: “This might be a general feature of these animals. They never really die.”

But were we not told that this obscure organism, and its lone scientific pursuer, were our best chance at understanding immortality? Now we learn that Turritopsis is not unique. 

Next, we hear from some researchers who doubt that Turritopsis has much if anything to teach us about human immortality. We hear more about Kubota's life. Kubota tells Rich, "I want to be young again. I want to become miracle immortal man." He tells Rich we are intelligent enough to achieve biological immortality, "but we don't deserve it....spiritual change is needed." These are not comments a scientist would make. They are not supported by data. If Kubota wants to encourage spiritual change and to make himself young again, then something else is going on here.

Then we get the second of the two revelations that undermine the premise of the story, leaving it in tatters.

Some 6,000 words into a 6,500-word story, in the fourth-last graf, Rich writes that the "immortality" of the jellyfish "is, to a certain degree, a question of semantics."

Turritopsis, we now find out, is not immortal:

“That word ‘immortal’ is distracting,” says James Carlton, [a] professor of marine sciences at Williams. “If by ‘immortal’ you mean passing on your genes, then yes, it’s immortal. But those are not the same cells anymore. The cells are immortal, but not necessarily the organism itself.”

Humans pass on genes, too. Does that mean we are already immortal? That is, in fact, the principal thing organisms do--pass on their genes. (And the quote itself is confusing. Carlton says the regenerated creature does not have "the same cells anymore," but then he says "the cells are immortal." Which is it?) 

The disclosure that immortality is being used in some special sense makes everything we've read meaningless. The semantic distinction means we are not talking about immortality at all--merely about reproducing. Far from being a potential medical breakthrough, the "immortality" of Turritopsis is nothing more than a biological oddity. Kubota is not on the verge of a medical breakthrough.

It's clear that Rich was seduced by the romance of the story. Kubota is indeed a fascinating character and a prime candidate for a profile. What is missing here is a proper sense of journalistic detachment and skepticism. Kubota seems like a genial fellow, and Rich clearly likes and admires him. There's nothing wrong with that, except that Rich makes the fatal mistake of  swallowing everything Kubota tells him. And when Rich briefly quotes critics, he seems to suggest that they dissent only because they do not understand Kubota's work.

It's conceivable that hundreds or thousands of Times readers will get in touch with Kubota, desperately trying to save a dying parent, or a spouse, or themselves. They will come away empty-handed. But whether or not that happens, the Times has done its readers a disservice. The story is festooned with warning flags. Why didn't anyone see them?

This post originally appeared at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker.