20 Things You Didn't Know About... Immortality

Humans continue to seek after it, but other life forms have already achieved it.

By Grace Halden|Thursday, April 02, 2015
Pixelbliss / Shutterstock

1. Two things are certain in this world: We are born, and we die. But must we? Billionaire Dmitry Itskov and his group the 2045 Initiative want to cheat death by creating artificial bodies to house human intelligence.

2. Itskov and friends think they can develop a hologram “avatar,” housing an individual’s personality in an artificial brain, within three decades.

3. Terasem’s LifeNaut project claims to offer longevity today. All you need to do is create a LifeNaut account and upload as much information about yourself as possible. Apparently the “mindfile” may be used to reconstruct you in the future.

4. Immortality isn’t merely a 21st-century quest. In the third century B.C., Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang ingested mercury to gain eternal life. It didn’t work.

5. We don’t know if anyone tried to resurrect Qin, but in the 1980s, anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis documented cases of the “dead” rising from their graves in Haiti.

6. Davis claimed that by ingesting tetrodotoxin, a neurotoxin in pufferfish and other species, the living appeared to be deceased and could later be “resurrected.”

7. Reviving the dead for real was a focus of the Soviet Union’s Institute of Experimental Physiology and Therapy, overseen by Sergei Bryukhonenko.

8. The 1940 video Experiments in the Revival of Organisms supposedly demonstrated the institute’s reanimation of organs and even decapitated dog heads.

9. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, aviator Charles Lindbergh, along with scientist Alexis Carrel, conceived of many inventions and procedures to extend human life, such as an artificial heart perfusion pump. Lindbergh died of cancer in 1974.

10. While we humans obsess about achieving immortality, other organisms seem to do it effortlessly. In 2014, scientists revived Pithovirus sibericum, a virus preserved for 30,000 years in Siberian permafrost, simply by letting it thaw.

11. The immortal jellyfish (Turritopsis dohrnii) actually reverses its life cycle. An adult transforms itself through transdifferentiation — converting one type of cell into another — back into a juvenile form.

12. Members of another “immortal” species, the tiny invertebrate Bdelloid rotifers, are all female and reproduce by spawning identical clone daughters.

13. Scientists have been taking a cue from the little rotifers and cloning mammals for nearly 20 years, beginning in 1996 with Dolly the sheep, created by Ian Wilmut’s team at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh.

14. Dolly developed age-related conditions early and died at age 6; sheep often live to 12. Researchers found she had prematurely shortened telomeres, protective caps on the ends of chromosomes that reduce with age.

15. Although Dolly ignited an ethical debate about cloning animals, the practice has grown and gone commercial: South Korea’s Sooam Biotech regularly clones pets for about $100,000.

16. Human reproductive cloning is widely prohibited, but therapeutic cloning — creating stem cells that are a genetic match to the patient — is more generally accepted because the cells are used to treat disease.

17. Unlike most other types of cells, which are programmed to die after a certain number of divisions, stem cells are immortal because they can multiply infinitely. Unfortunately, so can cancer cells.

18. The most famous case of cancer-based immortality is that of Henrietta Lacks, who died of cervical cancer in 1951. Cells from her malignancy were cultured and used to start a cell line, called HeLa, which lives on to this day in research labs around the world.

19. HeLa cell-based research has been instrumental in developing vaccines and fighting AIDS and cancer, but it has not been without controversy. No one informed or obtained consent from Lacks or her family to culture her cells.

20. Only in 2013, more than 60 years after her death, did the National Institutes of Health and Lacks’ descendants agree how her cells and genetic information would be used. The arrangement establishes a precedent in cell line research ethics, granting Lacks a new legacy — itself a kind of immortality.

Comment on this article