Who Wants to Live Forever?

21 July 2008
Presented by Diana O'Carroll.

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How old is the oldest organism? In this Question of the Week we find out if any organism has found the secret of eternal life, and can truly live forever. Plus, we ask if all the water on Earth has been drunk before, and how much data can our brain take before it's full?

In this episode

Aldabra Giant Tortoise, Geochelone gigantea, at Bristol Zoo, England.

00:00 - Are any organisms immortal?

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

Are any organisms immortal?

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

One of the longest living vertebrate animals, and many listeners will be aware of this, is the giant land tortoise. There's 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. There's 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 record's 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 didn't 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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