Programmed to die : The unlikely key to biological immortality

Turning 30 was like a swift kick in the balls and I know I was not  alone in this experience – no one likes getting old.

Our society is geared towards celebrating and worshipping  the status of youth, the amount of money the western world spends on plastic surgery and anti-ageing remedies are a testament to this obsession with holding onto our virility.

This fixation is nothing new, eternal youth is a recurring theme in folk tales and mythology (vampires ec) which has been passed on in cultures across the globe. It is also worth mentioning that a significant amount of historical figures are known to have endeavoured to remedy this inevitable decay of the corporeal vessel that we take through life and achieve immortality. Perhaps the most infamous of these is Elizabeth Báthory .

Weapons grade resting bitch face

This woman used to torture and murder virgin girls and drink/bathe in their blood in the pursuit of stealing there virile energy and preserving her beauty. She died under the medieval version of house arrest in this tower when she was 54.

#Fail

However this crazy bitch may not have been that far of the mark, experiments with mice have shown that if a 3 year old mouse (officially old as fuck in mouse years) has its blood drained and replaced with blood donated from younger mice it actually shows signs of rejuvenation and can even extend its life span.

With the prospect of the human race being able to manufacture synthetic blood a very real possibility in the near future this could very well hold implications for further extending the virility of human beings.

This is all standard stuff though, obviously organ and blood transplants can extend the natural lifespan of humans, where it gets really interesting is whether it is possible to genetically programme humans not to age past a certain point and remain at their biological peak indefinitely. This idea has been explored in the science fiction film ‘In Time’ which is a cool premise for a film but watching Justine Timberlake trying to act is like being force fed a bee hive.

So can we hack biological aging?

To answer this we need to look into why we age in the first place.

It was always assumed that ageing just happens due to biological wear and tear, your body fully replaces all of its cells (apart from some brain cells) in a constant cycle and after you pass your adult prime your cells start replicating as a slightly shittier version of themselves each time. The key factor in this process appears to be the degradation of mitochondrial DNA (the cells power plant). However new research has indicated that the gradual degrading process that we call aging may have been selected by an evolutionary mechanism and not a fundamental trait of organic life.

A new study from the New England Complex Systems Institute speculates that ageing may exist to ensure that older generations die and they don’t out compete the younger generation and thus maintain a healthy generational flow of new animals –we are essentially programmed to die so that the young may live.

This concept can be observed in nature, in some species of octopuses the female dies after reproducing – however if you surgically remove a certain gland it stays alive.  This implies that evolution has selected the animal to die after reproducing as it is the best way for to ensure the survival of the species.

It’s quite a trippy concept to get your head around but it makes sense –  it would be very hard for juvenile animals to survive in an environment filled with adults that are biologically immortal because they would be outcompeted by an abundance of their larger and fully developed rivals.

So the very reason we get old and die may help life propagate – if this is true stopping the aging process might be simpler than previously thought as it biologically feasible for cells to continually replicate themselves perfectly without deteriorating.

Image courtesy of NECSI

There are of course exceptions to this evolutionary strategy and some animals may be actually be biologically immortal, the best example of this is the imaginatively named immortal jellyfish. These blobs of floating water goo can alternate between their juvenile and mature state indefinitely which means they will never die of old age.

It’s only a matter of time before they get eaten or killed by something but in theory you could keep one of these animals alive in captivity for 5 billion years until the sun goes white dwarf and fucks our solar system up.

So if humans do age and deteriorate because we are evolutionarily programmed to die, conquering aging may be simpler than previously thought as we wouldn’t have to overcome a fundamental trait of organic life. In the near future the lifespan of human beings could drastically increase.

Obviously despite being biologically immortal we would all eventually die of something, whether it being falling down the stairs or snorting venomous fire ants at an Ozzy Osborne gig (yes that happened).

Overall though I feel western societies chronic anxiety about getting old is not worth the hassle – it is possible to age in style.

My Grandad rocking a starfish like a boss.

We should all learn to just enjoy the ride into crippling obsolescence.