Any Truth Behind Immortal Jellyfish Claim?

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If you open a New York Times this weekend, you'll find a story about jellyfish and immortality splashed across the cover of the Sunday magazine.

The 6,500-word narrative is a compelling read, but a critic at the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT urges skepticism.

"…the problem with this story is that much of what is reported is highly improbable, even unbelievable," writes Paul Raeburn. "And the writing is discursive to a fault."

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The author, novelist Nathaniel Rich, traveled to Japan to meet a scientist who thinks that an organism known as Turritopsis dohrnii may unlock the secret to human immortality. The tiny jellyfish does a seemingly death-defying trick: After it grows from a polyp to an adult, it reverses the cycle and turns back into a polyp.

But Raeburn points out several red flags, among them: The author contends that the Turritopsis dohrnii is unique in its ability, but then quotes an expert who says that other species do the same thing. Then, another expert is quoted as saying that while the cells are immortal, the organism itself may not be. And it's unclear whether the scientist, Shin Kubota, is clouded by the idea of spiritual immortality.

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The bottom line? Here's how Raeburn sums it up:

"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."

So far, there is one correction appended to the online version. Stay tuned.

Photo: Turritopsis dohrnii Credit: YouTube