by Daniel Golden ‘18
Everyone wonders now and then what it would be like to never grow old, to live forever just watching and rewatching entire TV series on Netflix, day in and day out. For us mere mortals, this is just a pipe dream, but, for your average, everyday lobster, it’s more attainable than you might think. Aging is, at least in part, caused by the gradual degradation of segments of DNA at the ends of our genomes. These segments, called telomeres, get chipped away in tiny increments every time our cells divide, and they can only be repaired by telomerase, a special enzyme that human cells produce less and less of as we enter our less-than-golden years.
Lobsters are biologically immortal... at least until they become lobster rolls. [image via]
Lobsters are different, though, in that they have just about as much of this enzyme as a multicellular organism could want. As a result, lobsters more or less reach adulthood and just stop aging any further. Obviously, lobsters still die, but never due to old age. They can be injured, they can get sick, they can become lobster rolls, and they can die in a myriad of other ways as well. Unlike humans, however, they do all this without having to deal with gray hair, crow’s feet, or midlife crises. In fact, by all accounts, lobsters only become more impressive as they age.
Because lobsters’ cells remain healthy regardless of how many times they’ve divided, lobsters can just keep growing for centuries, reaching massive sizes. Technically, a lobster’s size and, therefore, its age is probably limited in the wild, because an increasingly large lobster would require an increasingly large food source. Eventually, any given lobster’s food source would just stop being enough to satisfy its appetite. In captivity, with an effectively unlimited food source, you could grow an insanely huge lobster but then that would take hundreds of years—which wouldn’t be particularly exciting, all things considered. Still, though, the fact that lobsters are biologically immortal is pretty cool, and they’re not alone! There are other organisms that share this quality, such as some jellyfish, flatworms, and types of plants. Lobsters are only the coolest and most closely related to humans.
Now, if you’re like me, you’re probably wondering at this point if there are any medical applications to this discovery. I would say that the answer is a hearty “maybe.” We’ve only really just begun to understand this phenomenon, and I suspect we’re still decades away from any real, practical research on how we might even begin to use this knowledge to engineer human cells to stay younger longer. You also have to consider the landslide of ethical issues that could come up. It’s a pretty crazy idea, but, then again, who really knows what the future holds? Maybe, in a hundred years, you’ll be eating cotton candy at the Central Park Zoo while walking around in a body that may as well be twenty-one years old. And, maybe, you might even get to see a lobster the size of a Range Rover, gorging itself on whatever tasty, undersea morsels lobsters most enjoy. If that’s not the dream, I don’t know what is.