Science is the poetry of Nature.

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What Makes Sea Anemones Immortal?

They’re tiny sea creatures who attach themselves to rocks, and look a bit like colorful sacks topped with delicate tentacles. They’re one of the most ancient animals on Earth, and share a common ancestor with humans (along with all other vertebrates). And they’re immortal. No, really.

I spoke with genomics researcher Daniel Rokhsar, who worked with a team to sequence the scarlet sea anemone genome in 2007, and continues to study the tiny, tenticular creatures in his lab at UC Berkeley. After he and his colleagues analyzed its genome, they discovered that sea anemones have closer ties to vertebrates than anyone had realized, making them more closely related to humans than they are to flies and worms.

Also, according to Rokhsar, one of the things that surprised the researchers was the complexity of the sea anemone nervous system. Though the creatures don’t have brains or central nervous systems, they do have genes that create specialized nerve cells. It’s unclear why, or what those cells do. He calls it the “cryptic molecular neuroanatomy of the sea anemone.” But that’s not the only cryptic aspect of sea anemone biology.

"As far as we know these are immortal animals," Rokhsar said. “You can cut them in half, and they’ll create two new anemones.” Even if you cut off the tentacles and mouth at the top of the anemone, the remaining sac will eventually regrow its “head.” And if they aren’t eaten or killed by toxins in their environments, they can seemingly live forever. Rokhsar continued:

They live a very long time – one was documented to have lived a hundred years. They don’t have old age. They live forever and proliferate, just getting bigger.

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