who wants to be immortal anyway?

June 20, 2009

If you’ve ever read more than a few entries from The Daily Galaxy, you’ll notice a strange skew towards a sort of scientific sensationalism. Stories based on very limited and specific research are expanded into linchpins for brand new disciplines on the verge of getting us halfway across the galaxy in no time at all or giving us all an extra few centuries of life, if not immortality as in this post. Just take a quick look at it. An opening that tries to drive home that the author is being really serious. Nematode studies. Promises that in a few generations, this research will be applied to us. It has all the classic elements of a “someday day soon, you’ll live forever” story. But what about the reality? Are scientists really on the verge of finding a possible key to immortality?

old man

There are a lot of anti-aging studies done on nematodes, particularly the caenorhabditis elegans species. In those studies, researchers tend to come up with all sorts of solutions for radically extending the lifespans of their experimental population, from anti-oxidants to the latest idea of getting somatic cells to act like tougher and more resilient germ cells. And mysteriously, almost everything we try to throw at those nematodes does make them live a lot longer. Then, when we try to scale things up to more complex organisms like us, we find that what seemed to double the c. elegans lifespan has few, if any, real benefits for us. The only exception so far seems to be calorie restriction and even then, the technique has its limits.

But because we like to read about how we could be immortal any day now, countless blogs and mainstream media sources dutifully hype up findings to make it seem as if science found the fountain of youth. If you were to look at the actual study referenced in the Galaxy, you’d see that it doesn’t say a word about immortality. It’s only claim is to show that germ cells, the cells used for reproduction, are a lot better at dealing with aging and stress than somatic cells, the cells which build tissues and organs in our bodies. The researchers then try to prove it by tricking somatic cell lines in nematodes to behave like germ cells and get a longer living, healthier organism. Immortality? Not even close. It seems that in its hunt for a few thousand extra eyeballs, the Galaxy is giving its readers a lot of false hope with a dollop of science.

See: Curran, S., Wu, X., Riedel, C., & Ruvkun, G. (2009). A soma-to-germline transformation in long-lived C. elegans mutants Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature08106

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  • Aldebrn

    Thanks for posting this to ResearchBlogging. Don’t let sensationalist and incorrect scientific journalism get you down, it seems to provide an important diversion to many people from boredom or responsibility. Such nonscience acts as religion or entertainment.

    The rest of us will continue finding and reading relevant papers in Nature and Rejeuvenation Research etc. Which is where I’ll go now that I’m done complaining. Thanks for the link.

  • Vincius

    I’ve already read once death is caused by both accumulating a huge amount of genetic errors (such as those of DNA copying) and self-degenerating lines of genetic programming. Unless I’m mistaken, after about 64 divisions, a cell is set to degenerate, which eliminates the original dna content.

    I wonder if changing those genetic codes is really impossible. Something like rewriting the way our cells handle the self-replication so as to make it more effective. Of course oxygen will keep damaging our bodies, but what if we could produce a type of cells that would never cease to copying theirselves? Am I missing something that should make it impossible?

    I really thing you should write a couple articles about this. (:

  • Aldebrn
  • It is true that news is sensationalized, and can be misleading, however I guess in every part of it, there is at least some truth. Most scientists in aging may not be working for immortality per say, but certainly are looking to mitigate a lot of the detriments due to aging. And it is a good thing to work for.

    All the people and VCs at Sierra sciences would probably think so anyway:


    (you are a good writer by the way)

  • I’ll just write a quick comment regarding your title: “who wants to be immortal anyway?”. I know I do! Some people make ridiculous arguments like “you would get bored” – well, you could live for a thousand years and still not learn and see everything that our world has to offer, plus by that time it will have changed so radically there will be tons of new stuff to see and learn.

    I rather like this list – 10 reasons to live as long as possible:


  • Oh before I forget, I think death and evolution are useless for humanity at this point. Death is a mechanism to replace old organisms with new (different) ones to maintain evolution and adaptation, don’t you think? Well I believe evolution is way too slow for us at this point. Technical progress is thousands of times faster. Death has lost it’s meaning. Humans should strive to live forever and take over evolution with genetic engineering to improve our bodies and minds.

  • Greg Fish


    I’m completely with you on the idea of trying to see what it would take to live forever. Yes it will be very socially problematic if we can do it, but its not like we can’t come to terms with the consequences. This is obviously setting goals for the very far future, but hey, why shouldn’t we aim high?

    As for the title of the post, it was supposed to be a sarcastic reaction to The Daily Galaxy’s false promises about a major step towards unlimited lifespans.

  • MutantBuzzard

    there is a book titled the Physics of imortality that comes close to reconsiling science and the existance of a cerator

  • I doubt we should even be spending any effort on such subjects, the global population density is increasing way too fast as it is, but its obviously part of human nature so I doubt the subject will vanish any time in the future. There actually is a turtle, cant remember the exact name of the species but it is said to be pretty much immortal, its cells keep reproducing without aging but off course as everything in the wild, it eventually falls victim to another animal’s hunger or dies from the other 1000 possibilities out there.

  • I would love to live for centuries or millenia. There is so much to learn, to do, and to experience. With the acceleration of technology, this next century will bring changes so radical that they are hard to predict or even imagine. Check out Ray Kurzweil’s book and movie “Transcendent Man” for some incredible insights about how this future might play out.

  • Jessie Bai

    Is it true that Vampires can live forever? And hybrids of Lycans and Vampires are immortal, powerful and don’t fear sunlight? OMG,if so, I really really hope I can get tranfered to a vampire and then bit by a lycan, so that I will live forever and with super power, so cool….

    And for the scientific part, I just can’t be more excited to welecome the decode of DNA and decipher of aging. I hope I can live long enough to see this, and benefit from it, to live forever and realize all things that I am longing to do.