Question of the Week

Are any organisms immortal?

Sun, 20th Jul 2008

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Geoff Blackwell, Queensland, Australia asked:

Iíd like to know if there are any life forms: plant, animal, fungus, whatever that are effectively immortal?


We spoke to Dr John Nudds, Senior Lecturer in Palaeontology at the University of Manchester to find the answer...

Aldabra Giant TortoiseOne of the longest living vertebrate animals, and many listeners will be aware of this, is the giant land tortoise.  Thereís a nice story about Captain Cook, the explorer, presenting one of these animals to the queen of Tonga in 1788.  This animal eventually died in 1966, 188 years later.  The animal was probably mature by the time he collected it.

If we turn our attention to the plant kingdom we can multiply these figures by a factor of ten.  Thereís a well-known example of the bristlecone pine trees which grow in the rocky mountains of North America.  These are well-known to live for over 4000 years.  I think the recordís about 4600 years.

Again these figures have recently been doubled by research in Sweden.  Scientists here came across a Norway spruce whose root system had been growing for 9550 years!

If we now move onto some of the simpler life forms then the numbers do start to get really big.  In 1995 a sample of bacteria was found in a stomach of a bee which was encased in amber which was dated at between 25 and 40 million years old.  These bacteria were found in a state of suspended animation.  They had to be reanimated in the laboratory.  In scientific terms they were in what we would call a crypto-biotic state.  It means the cells remained alive but none of the life processes were being carried out.  They didnít feed or reproduce so whether you consider this as immortality or not is open to question.

To answer the question, the sad fact is that all cells do decompose with time.  All cells age and all cells eventually die so sadly, as yet no life form has evolved that is immortal.


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Hi There!

I think, in fact every liveform, which reproduces only through asexual Methods is immortal. They split and split ans split and split... and all the products are based on one origin.
There will be no mother cell thats getting old and dies, but two daughter cells which are living on until they split again...

aj atrox, Tue, 15th Jul 2008 RD, Tue, 15th Jul 2008

RD - please try to include some content with an answer, rather than just links, as this is more likely to stimulate a discussion.


Chris chris, Tue, 15th Jul 2008

Atrox could also be describing cloning.
Parthenogenic offsping are not clones of their mother.
Only clones could potentially be an immortal organism,
e.g. a plant which replicates by vegetative propagation.

Even then radioactivity or viruses could modify a clone's DNA creating genetic diversity.

The use of the word "immortal" is highly optimistic: more than 99% of the species which have existed are extinct.

Tardigrades are described in the NS article below as "indestructible", but "most resilient" would be more accurate...

image source RD, Wed, 16th Jul 2008

Pardon my rudeness, but that looks like a micropenis! chris, Wed, 16th Jul 2008

The shrunken dormant tardigrade above reminded me of the Clyde Auditorium...

image source

Images of plump tardigrades can be found here.  (Obviously a Dr Who fan)

RD, Wed, 16th Jul 2008

How long are those tardigrades supposed to live for then? chris, Wed, 16th Jul 2008

RD, Wed, 16th Jul 2008

Another contender for the worlds hardiest organism is "Conan the Bacterium"...

RD, Sat, 19th Jul 2008

Interestingly I interviewed a terrific scientist called Miroslav Radman who published a paper a couple of years back in which he explained how this bacterium manages to survive in corned beef tins that have been irradiated with a dose of ionising radiation sufficient to kill a human many times over. That's why it was called Deinococcus radiodurans when it was first identified about 50 years ago.

The organism has multiple (8) copies of its genome which is uses rather like a RAID backup system. When the DNA is damaged by, for instance, ionising radiation, the intact pieces of the shattered individual genomes produce single-stranded extensions of their DNA message which links up with complementary single strands from other bits of the genome. The chances of all 8 genomes have a double strand break in exactly the same place is very low, so eventually a working copy of the entire genome is reassembled, restoring function to the organism. This single working copy is then used to regenerate the other 7 backup copies in preparation for the next brush with a corned beef can!

Chris chris, Sat, 19th Jul 2008

Professor Radman working with radiation is fair example of so-called nominative determinism, these are better...

Dr Bonnie Beaver, gynecologist.
Lord Brain, leading neurologist.
Dr Dick Chopp, urologist (specialises in Peyronie's disease).
Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform.
Lord Justice Judge, British High Court judge.
Dr Looney, psychiatrist.
Cardinal Sin, former Archbishop of Manila.
Anna Smashnova the Israeli tennis player.
Dr Weedon, urologist.

. RD, Sun, 20th Jul 2008

No all earth life and indeed the whole universe is subject to relentless entropy anttend to dissapate into total disorder over time.

Of course living for 10 00 years for us would be considered as immortal. But in the grand order of things absolutely impossible.

Energy always morphs from hot to cold, order to disorder. We could delay death, but overcome it completely an impossibility only found as a possibility in religion Alan McDougall, Thu, 24th Jul 2008


"Cardinal Sin" is he the chief of all sinners, just kidding! Alan McDougall, Thu, 24th Jul 2008

The longest living clone plant is almost 5 times older that Norway spruce. It's Lomatia tasmanica, common name "Kingís lomatia" named after Denny King who discovered it. It's found in Tasmania, Australia. See$FILE/Lomatia%20tasmanica.pdf
Andrew Walsh, Wed, 30th Jul 2008

I would agree with this, even if there is some change in the genetics of the sister cells, they would still be from one original cell, hence the original did not die, nor were the sister cells born. It's like a unicellular plant/animal continuing to grow by increasing the number of cells, not as one whole body, but as a dismembered body in which each cell is capable of self support and self duplication. I don't see this as cloning, but as growing. Don_1, Tue, 26th Aug 2008

So in theory, if I take a cutting of my houseplant every 20 years and pass the new clone(s) down the generations under the same circumstances, could my plant live indefinetly? tr1, Thu, 2nd Oct 2008

Yes, I think so.

Plants such as the strawberry do this naturally. The plant can reproduce in the usual sexual manner by crosspollination, fruiting and employing the services a bird or insect to move the seed to a new location, where a new genetic plant will grow.

But the plant can also reproduce asexually by growing a 'runner' which will root some 15 or more cms from the original root. This 'new' plant continues to draw its nutrition from the original root stock until the new root is capable of supporting the already developing plant. The runner then dies off and the result is two genetically identical plants.

In essence, this is not a new plant, but the same plant growing a new top before it grows a new root. It is the usual method employed by strawberry producers to increase their plant stock with a plant which will produce exactly the same results year after year. The original plant from which these 'new' plants are cultivated are disposed of, since they will not produce so much fruit in their second year as they did in the first.

(Taken from
You can see here across the center of the picture a runner from the left hand plant. It already has top growth, but has not put down any root. The plant is feeding from the original rootstock.

At the top of the picture is a 'new' plant which has put down it's own root. The runner will die off to leave two separate but genetically identical plants. In fact the plant will send out a number of runners in different directions. You could say that this is the plants equivalent of moving house, or migration. The runners find a new patch of soil which, with any luck, will be more nutritious than the soil it has been drawing from for the past few months and the more 'new' plants, the better the chances of at least one of them successfully overwintering. The plant is doing what it has to do to ensure it's survival. This process goes on year after year, the original plant, therefore, never truly dies, it merely takes up a new residence. Don_1, Thu, 2nd Oct 2008

I'm honestly surprised that no one has brought up HeLa cells (immortal cancer cells that many labs have used for research).  Yes, they aren't technically alive in the normal sense of the word but the cancer cells can divide an unlimited number of times without any signs of stopping. ouabache, Fri, 3rd Oct 2008

An old topic, but I found something quite interesting that is relevant.

Apparently, there is a species of jellyfish called Turritopsis nutricula that is, in theory, immortal. The sexually mature medusa form of the species can actually revert to the sexually immature polyp stage. I guess it can then transform back into the medusa stage and continue the cycle indefinitely (as long as it can find food and avoid being killed, that is). Supercryptid, Thu, 18th Dec 2008

Not found yet,although slight change in definition of "life" may let us include microbes and virus in the list. ramtarun, Mon, 22nd Dec 2008

i'd just read a book about the quantum physics and some other theories concerning about that, i read an interpretation called 'Many-worlds interpretation'(also known as 'parallel universe theory', 'multiverse').
If that is true, then human (who have consciousness) are basically immortal. Because if you are dead, your consciousness will be basically shifted to another 3-dimension and in that another 3d world, you experience the probability of not dying. johnson039, Tue, 23rd Dec 2008

Some are, perhaps?
Don't really know, but a very good question...

Awh sorry, read the banner again.

' Are any organisms immortal? '

Thought it said
' Are any orgasms immoral?'

My fault, need glasses, or a 'cleaner' mind?
Probably both:)

yor_on, Fri, 26th Dec 2008

Just for fun, let's add the spiritual to the question 'are some life forms immortal?'  As usual, a state of self-consciousness has to be a part of the question when the spiritual realm is added...   When the biological entity dies and 'goes the way of all flesh' and returns to dust, is there a post-mortal consciousness that persists beyond the mortal body?  If so, then the original question of effectively immortal becomes more speculative when taken beyond this mortal coil.   So here is another questions:  Do human clones have separate souls?  Of course the answer is yes, cf. identical twins as separate but equal.  Do self-conscious animals (gorillas, dogs, grey parrots, elephants, humans, etc) have souls?  Self-consciousness doesn't necessarily imply souls, I think. And yet, the last great commandment made by Jesus before his Ascension was to preach the gospel to every creature. Why, if souls are only for humans?  Do dogs go to heaven?  Well, heaven without dogs, cats, etc would not be much of a heaven for me. Freeholder, Tue, 30th Dec 2008

Hybridomas, although not entire organisms, are essentially immortal.  They are myeloma cancer cells that are fused with plasma cells and are used in creating monoclonal antibodies for use as reagents. darkmartheight, Sat, 3rd Jan 2009

What about hydra? AFAIK there is no increase in mortality with age. There's also that jellyfish which can revert to a younger state. HeLa cells might count too. Anonymous, Thu, 26th Feb 2009

Yes, those darned Jellyfishes again. First they take over the oceans, and then us.
It is time we took a stand there. yor_on, Sat, 26th Dec 2009

You know I quite like this kind of stand

Can we take some over there?? Chemistry4me, Sat, 26th Dec 2009

Will you be the conductor?

Waltzing the jellyfishes to extinction?

Anyway, I'm not sure I would like that last one, they seem to be amazing creatures. Soon they will learn to communicate too.

"Take me to your leader." yor_on, Sat, 26th Dec 2009

First of all, nothing at all is immortal, and accordingly, the terminology must be reduced to 'long lasting'. After all, the sun will eventually die. In addition, I would exclude clones as a form of long lasting life. They are nothing more then recreated or reproduced life that has already or will soon die a separate death. It simply does not matter the genetics are the same.

An arguement might be made that certain Myceleum are long lived. However, I have yet to see a C14 dating of any long lived mycelium. This is probably because none of the living culture is old enough to measure, and qualifies mostly as a clone.

The longest lasting continuous life I am aware of is the Bristle Cone Pine. These are simply small shrub trees that live, well, who knows. Certainly many millenia. Dendrochronologists have cross referenced dead ones to living ones and spanned, I believe, something like 8,000 years. Still, the really old ones have been dead a very long time. litespeed, Tue, 5th Jan 2010

The bristlecones are indeed the oldest living trees. There are trees at least 4300 years old. The publicly shown trees are that old. There are trees in the 4800 year old range that are not revealed to the public. Other old trees include the giant sequoia. These trees are old and appear to die from falling over before they die of old age.

Some colonial plants are also old. The creosote bush of the American Southwest can live to over 11,000 years. A spruce in Sweden was just under 10,000 years. It too is colonial. Some colonial organisms may be 80,000 years old or older. stereologist, Tue, 5th Jan 2010


Fascinating. However, I googled  colonial organisms and they seem to fall into the clone category. I am especially interested in the Swedish spruce you mentioned. Does it continuously propogate from root stock? Did they do a core sample to determine its age?

If we count colonial organizms, Stromatolites might conceivably be millions of years old. They seem to be one of the few 'organisms' that survived 'Ice Ball' earth, and are still found in Australia. They are also the oldest form of fossil a collector can buy. Apparently because they were the only life form available for fossilization at the time.

However, none of the individual living cells are that old. They simply replace one after the other over long periods of time, leaving behind an accumulation matrix of whatever it is they excrete. I think it would be really neat if someone could compare current stromatolite DNA with the ancient ones.

I general, I would like to see DNA analysis of long lived clones to observe if random mutations take place, and at what rate.  Could a mutated clone still be considered the same life form. Or would it be counted as establishing a new line of clones.

Lots of fun....

litespeed, Tue, 5th Jan 2010

All living creature have to die. Nothing is immortal. The creature like amoeba is immortal, cause it reproduce through binary fission. Among plants mostly those which reproduce through vegetative propagation rarely comes to existence.  mystyle, Wed, 27th Jan 2010

Physical immortality is antithetical to sexual biology and the process of evolution. While immortality may sound great from an individual ego-based standpoint, it would represent an eventual death sentence for the human race. Our race, and indeed any sophisticated organism on Earth, uses evolution as a means to react to the changing environment and insure species survival. Random genetic experiments crop up in every generation. Most convey no advantage or are an active detriment to survival. As such, the alterations eventually disappear from the genome. However, periodically a genetic mutation gives the inheritor an important advantage which allows it to mate and spread the new genetic variant. Thusly, life faces the trials and tribulations that are present on our ever changing planet! PLEASE REMEMBER! The survival of any individual animal or plant is of no significance in the Grand Universal scheme of life. We're in it for the species, children! Immortality would undoubtedly place any such cursed species at a major evolutionary disadvantage. Even assuming sterility wasn't a side effect of a substantially extended or immortal lifetime, it's well known that longer lived life forms have fewer offspring space further apart. Fewer offspring means substantially lengthened time between generations and inhibits any organism's ability as a species to react to changes in the environment, new diseases etc. Indeed, many of the species that have gone extinct in the last 100 years fall into this slow-adaptor category. They just couldn't evolve fast enough to cope with the rapidly changing environment caused by humanity and our spread across the globe. The polar bear is probably doomed for instance, but I wouldn't wait around for the house fly or mosquito to follow suit! There's a reason scientists like using fruit flies and mice for genetic experiments. One of these reasons is how fast they multiply and evolve in responses to their environment. In fact, if it ever came down to a wager, I'd place money on the fruit flies, mice, and the infamous cock roach on outlasting homo sapiens sapiens as a species any day of the week! Yes, millions of these tiny individuals die every day, but their rapid evolution promotes their survival as a healthy species. Lastly, of course, would be the ghastly societal effects of widespread human immortality. Starvation, war, and social and economic anarchy would be the inevitable result. For the sake of humanity, let's keep physical immortality in the realm of science fiction and vampire movies and TV shows! The horror of these programs should be sufficient for anyone! Rick, Sun, 7th Mar 2010

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