Sunday, December 02, 2012

Twisted tree of life award #14: @nytimes and Nathaniel Rich on Immortal Jellyfish

Well, this article by Nathaniel Rich in today's New York Times Magazine certainly has gotten people talking: Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality? - .  Alas, from a scientific point of view there are numerous problems with it.  So many that Paul Raeburn at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker at MIT has published a major takedown: First we get proof of heaven; now the secret of immortality. 

Now, the science about immortality in the article is certainly bad.  But that is not what I am here to discuss.  I am here to discuss the parts of the article about evolution.  I suppose if I had read the article online instead of in print I might have been attuned already to potential evolution problems from the correction on the first page
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: November 29, 2012
An earlier version of this article misstated the title of Charles Darwin’s classic book on the subject of evolution. It is “On The Origin of Species,” not “On the Origin of the Species.”
Oops.  Not a good start.  The article has a lot of background about jellyfish and in particular on person who is studying them and claiming this one species is immortal (which it is not).  It is the higher vs. lower organism meme that drives me crazy in the article:
Today the outermost twigs and buds of the Tree of Life are occupied by mammals and birds, while at the base of the trunk lie the most primitive phyla — Porifera (sponges), Platyhelminthes (flatworms), Cnidaria (jellyfish).
And then 
The mystery of life is not concealed in the higher animals,” Kubota told me. “It is concealed in the root. And at the root of the Tree of Life is the jellyfish. 
Seriously?  The root of the tree of life is the jellyfish?  And higher vs. lower organisms?  What exactly is a higher organism?  Does this mean that jellyfish have not evolved since their branch separate from the trunk of the animal tree?  Oh - and - what about the rest of the Tree of Life - you know - outside of animals for example?  Aaargh.  

The higher vs. lower meme continues with this quote:
Hydrozoans, he suggests, may have made a devil’s bargain. In exchange for simplicity — no head or tail, no vision, eating out of its own anus — they gained immortality.
Really?  So there is a tradeoff between complexity and immortality?  So does this mean all simple organisms are more immortal?  And all complex ones are doomed?  Where does this notion even come from?

For helping perpetuate the higher vs. lower organism meme (which drives me batty) I am awarding the author and the editor and the NY Times my coveted "Twisted Tree of Life" award.

As an aside, the article is littered with painful other statements like
It is possible to imagine a distant future in which most other species of life are extinct but the ocean will consist overwhelmingly of immortal jellyfish, a great gelatin consciousness everlasting.
So - this jellyfish operates in the absence of an ecosystem?  Suppose individual organisms are "immortal" as claimed in the article.  What exactly will they eat when everything else is gone?

Plus there is a conspiracy part that is lame.
You might expect that biotech multinationals would vie to copyright its genome; that a vast coalition of research scientists would seek to determine the mechanisms by which its cells aged in reverse; that pharmaceutical firms would try to appropriate its lessons for the purposes of human medicine; that governments would broker international accords to govern the future use of rejuvenating technology. But none of this happened.
Really?  So all the scientists and companies of the world have ignored this amazing finding?  Maybe, just maybe you might think that is because this is BOGUS?

And then there is the bogus "small bodied organism" problem.
He cited this as an example of a phenomenon he calls the Small’s Rule: small-bodied organisms are poorly studied relative to larger-bodied organisms. There are significantly more crab experts, for instance, than hydroid experts.
What?  Is this even remotely serious?  So ignore Drosophila as a model for animals.  Or mice for that matter.  Ignore Arabidopsis as a model for plants.  Ignore yeast too.  And E. coli.  Uggh.  Completely inane. 


  1. Excellent take-down of just a few of the things that have been driving me crazy with the resurgence if the "immortal jellyfish" news stories going around. Thanks! We in the jellyfish community have been amazed at how this story has popped back up after several years. All your good points aside, the idea of reverting back to a stem cell and developing anew is not exactly what people think of in terms of being "immortal."

    1. yeah - how did that ever pass muster as being called "immortal"???

    2. As a matter of fact, in the original 1996 article the authors wrote of "potential immortality", even though they speak correctly of ontogeny reversal. My 2 cents.

  2. I think there is some value to the higher vs. lower organism meme and I find it interesting that of the major problems with that article this is what drove you batty. You guys working on lower organisms have it good: we chose an easy life but seek same recognition with those of us that bust our ass to make sense of the complexities of higher organism. Why don't you just enjoy what you CHOSE to do and ....

    1. ??? what are higher organisms? what are lower organisms?

  3. Nathaniel Rich would never have gotten this gig if he weren't Frank Rich's kid. The writing style is (almost) as over-the-top as the science. If you read his other work it's full of wild exaggerations and made-up dialog. And indeed there are a number of researchers coming forward to say they were misquoted. The fault here lies with the Times editors. They knew what they were going to get with this particular writer. They chose to let him try a science piece anyway. Too bad because this could have been an interesting AND educational topic, instead of just validating the misconceptions of thousands of readers (see the comments on the NYT website).

    1. wow - had no idea who he was - it is truly over the top and just very very bad

  4. Jonathan,

    I did my own takedown here at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker:

    You and I are definitely in the same groove on this. Please take a look, and I'm going to add the link to this piece in the comments on mine.

    The piece is a travesty.

    1. Paul ... see the beginning of my post ... I talked about your piece ...

  5. This is a fantastic piece. I can't stand writers who don't understand how to properly use the "tree of life" metaphor or don't understand that all extant organisms have been evolving - they aren't "living fossils".

    Also, we may learn a lot about radical life extension from species that have longer life expectancies than us, but there is no evidence for an "immortal" species - and how one would even go about proving a species was "immortal" is also very problematic. The term negligible senescence appeals to me more - but I don't really know if anyone has conclusively shown that any species exhibits this tendency either.

    I'm really interested in aging research (especially within an evolutionary context), I think it is one of the most mysterious areas of evolutionary research, but this writer clearly doesn't know what he's talking about. Thanks for your analysis!


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