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Serious Science: the search for immortality

Friday, 26 June 2009 — by

Immortality. To live indefinitely. A dream for some, while a kind of hell for others. Death is a biological mechanism. And what do we know about biological mechanisms? They can, occasionally, surprise us in ways we couldn’t have imagined — not in a million years…

I’ve long maintained that if conditions like progeria (accelerated decrepitude) exist, then there has to be a condition that predisposes someone to extended longevity. And a little girl called Brooke Greenberg (video) could well be living proof of that theory of mine:

“She is not aging, but it seems that her body is developing as independent parts out of sync. If you were to look at photos, she is unchanged, and there’s no indication that she would be in fact getting any older, and as far as everybody knows, if this continues on, she has no reason to die. She also has a sister, but she’s perfectly normal, so there aren’t any hints here to help solve this mystery.”

Brooke has an unidentified condition that has left her physically and mentally stuck at the stage of infancy. “Stuck?” You say. Yes, because Brooke is 16 years old. And as far as those who’ve studied her are concerned, she may be stuck that way for all eternity.

What a price immortality

There are, however, some odd and perplexing moral and ethical issues, here. If we assume Brooke was to live for another two hundred years, what quality of live would she have? While she is undoubtedly alive and healthy, probably capable of feeling pain and experiencing basic pleasure, she is and forever will be an infant. Is the expense of keeping her alive justified, if her existence is without meaning, given her inability to progress any further than the developmental stage of a toddler?

To keep someone or something alive for the sake of life alone is no life at all, and with all emotive issues set aside, illogical and foolish.

So what is death? Well, death is a biological mechanism, one without an obvious “off” switch. And many have looked. It’s probably as well to look at death as being like the wiring loom of my Audi S3, which has been installed with the intentions of foiling attempts to steal the car, since the wiring is purposefully interwoven in such a way as to make it extremely difficult to isolate the immobilizer — remove the fuse for the alarm system and you’ll probably disable the EMU (engine management unit), and so on.

So what are the origins of death? Ancient, by any measure. Imagine the very first primordial, microbial life, swimming freely in vast shallow and warm oceans. Such organisms had the run of the whole planet, with access to near limitless resources. With such an abundance of resources, what need is there for death? But that other biological mechanism came into force. Evolution. And quickly (relatively speaking) those microbial organisms began to fill whatever environmental niche best suited their needs. So diversification became a natural force.

At some point, the theory suggests the death mechanism evolved. But why? Let me ask you a question: what do you do when you buy a new gadget? You usually throw away its predecessor, to make room. And now we know better, we recycle what we dispose of.

It would seem that mother nature was well ahead of us in this regard, because that is precisely the point of death. As a new organism emerges, it is tentatively accepted that it is biologically superior to its progenitor. So to avoid competition for resources, the progenitor has a time stamp encoded within every cell.

A matter of life and death

OK, so let’s assume death came about later on. If we assume this, and that the early Earth was much like a gigantic Petri dish, wouldn’t it be possible for some of those early immortal microbes to have survived? Theoretically, yes. In practical terms, probably not. Unless the conditions conducive to their existence continued to exist.

The problem is, the very earliest life forms would find the modern world totally hostile to their kind of life. At some point in the distant past, the Earth was anaerobic, which is to say mostly free of the gaseous composition we rely on today to breath. Later, something happened that changed that, rapidly transitioning the vast majority of the planet to an aerobic environment, triggering the first mass extinction, most likely as caused by the emergence of the first stromatolites.

Right now, out there in some ocean, scientists sit aboard ships, sifting through core samples taken from deep oceanic floor sludges. These anaerobic environs would be a perfect retreat for the immortal microbes of the very early Earth.

If we consider the sheer numeracy of bacterial reproduction, for example, the biomass of the early Earth would have been staggering. But also, the amount of time that has passed since then is equally staggering; some 3.8 billion years. If such a microbe is to be discovered, that will, in my opinion, be one of the greatest discoveries ever.

But all of these fancy and intricate stories aren’t even fairy tales to baby Brooke Greenberg. But she is probably as big a part of this story as those miniscule, ancient microbes. She may hold, within her cells and her genes, the instructions to decoding and turning off death. At once, interrupting one of the most powerful mechanisms in nature.

The question is, should we? The planet is already fast approaching a point where there are too many people alive consuming too few, dwindling resources. To have walking amongst us immortals would create a new sub-class — everyone else who wasn’t immortal.

Right now, out there somewhere, of all the people that have been born over the last few millennia, we could imagine one amongst us having walked more than most. Seen things most of us have read about in history books. Have taken part in events of historical significance. They could carry within their genes a mistake, a capricious moment in human evolution, imprinted into and encoded within their very DNA.

For the ancient microbe and Brooke Greenberg at least, the source of their immortality can wait a while longer. After all, they may well have all the time in the world…

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Comment and be known

Snow Vacation → Thursday, 2 July 2009 @ 21:18 BDT

Well, well, well

The problem of immortality was disturbing the bright brains of great scientists for hundreds of years. Sometimes I think that the solution was found, but the immortality can add even more problems for crazy human civilization…. So no one is going to share his discovery….

Simon Wilby → Friday, 3 July 2009 @ 7:08 BDT

I don’t know what to say, but for me, its like playing God’s creation.

Admission Essay → Tuesday, 7 July 2009 @ 18:23 BDT

“Immortality. To live indefinitely. A dream for some, while a kind of hell for others.

I’ve long maintained that if conditions like progeria (accelerated decrepitude) exist, then there has to be a condition that predisposes someone to extended longevity. And a little girl called Brooke Greenberg (video) could well be living proof of that theory.”

Progeria reminds of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” The case of Benjamin Button is the opposite of Progeria. Instead of aging, Benjamin was born old and then got younger and younger until he became a baby.

The case of Brooke Greenberg proves that truth is indeed stranger than fiction. Greenberg doesn’t grow old just like those with Progeria or become young just like the fictional character Benjamin, she’s actually stagnated in a certain stage of infancy. Her case made me think that Peter Pan may not be a figment of J.M Barrie’s imagination.

Paycheck Loans CA → Monday, 10 August 2009 @ 6:45 BDT

You say Immortality is to live indefinitely, a dream for some, while a kind of hell for others. Yes, I agree that it may be a dream for many to live infinitely and never have to leave their loved ones, but what is it that makes it a hell for many? Getting too dipped into the muddy obstacles of life for some?

“To keep someone or something alive for the sake of life alone is no life at all”

I strongly agree on this one. It is useless to be kept alive when life doesn’t have any meaning to you at all anymore.

Sorry Comments are close. Quite possibly for a good reason. Share your thoughts on some of my other posts or contact me directly.

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