FlipFact of the Day: Humanity’s fascination with immortality began way before anyone reading this was born, and will most likely outlive all of us. Throughout the course of history, both science and religion have struggled to unlock the secret to overcoming senescence (biological deterioration, brought about by the loss of our cells’ power to divide and grow). And if internet stories are to be believed, the sea-dwelling lobster may hold the key to eternal life. Some say that lobsters are blessed with biological immortality, meaning that barring accidents or predators, they can live forever. Unfortunately, one can also say that they’re just cursed with a very high chance to die horribly.
Lobsters and other decapod crustaceans share an interesting trait: indeterminate growth, meaning they don’t really have a set limit to how large they can grow. As lobsters grow, they shed their exoskeletons in a process called molting. With each molting session, the lobster increases in size. On average, a lobster can molt 44 times before it turns a year old; as an adult, it will molt once every two or three years. It’s difficult to tell the age of a lobster, though, as molting doesn’t leave behind any evidence hinting at how old the crustacean is.
Now, you can probably imagine how painful and stress-inducing this self-skinning process is for a lobster. Experts say that lobsters can endure this because of their seemingly boundless supply of an enzyme called telomerase. As humans grow, our cells divide, and each time this happens, we lose part of our telomeres, the caps at the ends of our chromosomes protecting them from deterioration. At some point, the loss of telomeres will render our cells unable to divide. Lobsters don’t have this problem, though, thanks to their telomerase constantly repairing their telomeres.
However, before you start envying lobsters for their “eternal youth,” consider this. Thanks to bacterial infections and diminishing metabolic energy, molting will eventually become too strenuous for even the hardiest lobster. Basically, lobsters become either too old or too weak to break out of their shells. Some end up dying of various diseases; others are unable to leave their rotting shells, suffering painful deaths.
The sad reality is that immortality remains out of our grasp. Perhaps it’s better to focus less on avoiding the inevitable, and more on making the most out of our lives while we can.
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Cover: Wikimedia Commons