Last updated May 18, 2017 at 11:32 am
Does the idea of living forever fill you with delight or a slight sense of apprehension?
The concept and search for immortality has been around for thousands of years, and although humans have dreamed of eternal life, we are not yet immortal. The only animals who have been theorised to be immortal all have bodies made of gel-like substances and are far less complex than humans. The immortal jelly fish (Turritopsis dohrnii) is theorised to be immortal as it can revert back to an immature stage to reactivate it’s stem cells in order to repair, before re-maturing again.
If there’s a group with enough financial backing to support medical research to discover how to live forever: it’s the tech giants. As for human mortality, a co-founder of Paypal wishes to live to one hundred and twenty, which is pretty modest compared to a founder of Google who hopes one day to “cure death”. Companies are pouring millions of dollars into existing medical research groups or if you happen to be like Google, you’re creating your own. Each of these medical research groups and tech companies have a different tactic, some aim to cure aging by regulating telomere length (the end of chromosomes which reduces in length as you age), and others focus their research on stem cells and genes which appear to affect aging.
- RELATED: The key to youth: telomerase
Cryongenics – Matthew Fisher
A local group trying to help you stave off death is the newly minted Southern Cryonics which is due to open their brand new facility late this year. They promise to suspend you in a vat of liquid nitrogen just after death in order to preserve your body at that point in time. You are kept in suspension in the hopes that the future of science and technology will advance far enough to reanimate you.
Southern Cryonics Treasurer and software engineer, Matthew Fisher became involved in cryonics as he sees “cryonics as the most important thing [he] can do right now.” Mr Fisher has high hopes future medical advances with lengthen people’s lifespan and keep them healthier, but that doesn’t help anyone who doesn’t survive that long. “I want everyone to have the opportunity to see these benefits, and cryonics is currently the only way to do it.”
Biomedical solutions – Professor Peter Choong
Professor Peter Choong, is focusing on increasing people’s quality of the life rather than extending them. Prof Choong is an orthopaedic surgeon based at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne. He says the aim of technology is to “improve the quality of our lives and help regain [quality of life] which may have been lost to injury, degeneration, disease or tumour.” Prof Choong is currently working towards building an artificial limb which interfaces directly with the nervous system by incorporating synthetic material and electronics into human tissue. This direct connection will enhance the connectivity between the human and artificial limb.
He has also clinically trialling a “biopen” which rather containing than ink, contains stem cells and a hardening agent. The use of this “biopen” will allow doctors to sculpt the reconstruction to match the defect as closely as possible.
Gene expression – Professor Jenny Graves
Professor Jenny Graves thinks accomplishing immortality, is even more complicated than we currently realise. Professor Graves has spent fifty years researching how genes are regulated and thinks we need to not only observe evolutionary changes in our DNA but how they’re expressed. This study of how genes can be switched on and off independent of their sequence is called epigenetics. Professor Graves marvels at the complexity of epigenetic changes, she says “[they] will continue to surprise, particularly those that are set by environmental conditions and persist through one or two generations.”
She continues to say that if immortality is to ever be achieved, “we need to know how [our genetic code] evolved so we are human and how it’s interpreted to make a human.” So, if we discover genes which appear to slow aging it’s a huge breakthrough, but their presence doesn’t necessarily mean they’re expressed. It will be the discovery of the dynamic epigenetic expression of these genes which will really change the game.
Professor Graves concluded that in order to have a big picture of ageing and whether we’ll achieve immortality “we must combine our knowledge of DNA with our knowledge of chromosomes, cells, tissues and organs.”
Explore this topic further and hear from Mr Fisher, Prof Peter Choong and Prof Jenny Graves at the Immortality show during the Adelaide Fringe Festival at the Science Exchange on the 16th of Feb. Get 50% off the show with the code word ‘IMMORTALITY’. Tickets through FRINGETIX.
The event is presented by the Australian Academy of Science with the Royal Institution of Australia as part of the Adelaide Fringe Festival. It is the fifth and final event in the Academy of Science’s Life + Death series, exploring subjects that challenge opinions and start conversations. The series was produced with Science and Technology Australia.