Turritopsis nutricula is a jellyfish native to the warmer, tropical waters of the Caribbean. It is a small individual, typically no larger than 4.5mm. Turritopsis nutricula is more commonly known as the “immortal jellyfish” as it has developed a unique mechanism that may render itself potentially immortal. The jellyfish is able to revert from its adult phase back to a younger polyp; a biological process known as transdifferentiation.
Turritopsis nutricula only uses this process in times of stress, and typically reproduces the old-fashioned way, by the unison of free-floating sperm and eggs. Typically, these jellyfish will also die by natural processes like predation. However, in times of extreme stress, such as starvation or physical damage, Turritopsis nutricula will revert back to its younger state by transforming its existing cells. In this transformation process, the jellyfish’s cells completely change, with muscle cells having the ability to become nerve cells or even sperm and eggs. The jellyfish can then reproduce asexually producing hundreds of genetically identical individuals that are able to complete this cycle again.
Although this phenomenon of the natural world is truly incredible, it comes at a cost. These jellyfish are invading waters beyond their natural range, often being transported in the ballast water of ships. Currently the effect of these jellyfish in their invaded ecosystems is unknown; however, researchers believe the jellyfish may hold vital information in the fight against cancer. “The ability of these jellyfish to switch off some genes and to switch on other genes, reactivating genetic programs that were used in earlier stages of the life cycle has the potential to provide information on how to fight cancer”, says Stefano Piraino of the University of Salento in Italy.
These jellyfish are truly unique, so keep your eyes out for these individuals whatever ocean you are in as you may see natures very own Benjamin Button.