words by willow defebaugh
For thousands of years, humankind has told tales of the fountain of youth. Has it been swimming in the ocean all along?
“We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations.”
For thousands of years, humankind has told tales of the fountain of youth: a mythical wellspring that turns back the hands of time. And while our search for a literal spout may have ceased, we are no less obsessed with evading our mortality. We place the young and beautiful on altars and alter our appearances to emulate them. We hide all evidence of aging, placing our elders in homes. We invest in artificial intelligence, edging ever closer to digital immortality. Meanwhile, oceans away, another lifeform has already found what our species seeks: the immortal jellyfish.
As it turns out, eternity exists in a creature smaller than the nail of your pinky finger. Turritopsis dohrnii begins its life cycle the way all jellyfish do. A fertilized egg becomes a larva, also known as a planula. It swims the sea until settling upon the ocean floor, where it transforms into an anemone-looking polyp. This singular polyp then clones itself into an entire colony. Before long, all of the polyps bloom into genetically identical medusae—what we identify as jellyfish.
As if their journey to maturity wasn’t miraculous enough, the true magic of immortal jellyfish comes when these medusae are harmed or hungry to the point of starvation. When they start to die, they sink back to the ocean floor and begin to shed their translucent flesh. In an astonishing feat of evolutionary enchantment, their cells reorganize and revert back to an earlier stage of the jellyfish’s life cycle, becoming a young polyp once more. That polyp will then clone itself again, spawning a new bloom of genetically identical jellyfish—cheating death along the way.
The process by which this occurs is a rare one known as transdifferentiation, also known as lineage reprogramming. Through it, any of the jellyfish’s adult cells—even those that serve a highly specific function—can metamorphose into an entirely different cell type. This raises questions not only about immortality, but identity. Even if its DNA stays the same, if all of an organism’s cells change, is it still the same creature it once was? Is it many lifeforms or one?
It’s strange, going through my own version of transdifferentiation. In some ways, I feel adolescent again: navigating hormone changes, discovering the body in new forms. I am unwinding the clock. In other ways, I feel acutely aware of my maturity; the joys and perils of coming into myself as a woman in a world that tells us we become more medusa-like with time. One could argue that I am becoming someone new, but most days it feels like returning to myself. And so I have come to understand aging that way: as a journey both to and from.
I love growing older: the discernment we develop to determine what is for us and what is not. The survival mechanisms and rituals we discover over the years, the tools we invent to keep ourselves centered amidst an ocean of churning chaos. The communities we cultivate, the families we bloom into. The fortitude that time fosters, the confidence in our capacity to weather whatever is thrown our way. The increasing clarity on what really matters to us in this life.
Like the immortal jellyfish, we all grow both young and old. We shed versions of ourselves, and yet some eternal core of us remains. We reprogram our lineages, unbound by linearity. We live on in the generations that follow, healing not only for our own sake, but for those to come. The fountain of youth isn’t something we have yet to discover—it’s what we are already part of, a system infinitely regenerating itself. It’s the waters we swim in, ancient and evernew.