While the idea of immortal creature seems to fit better in Middle-Earth than it does in the real world, a species of freshwater polyps known as Hydras seem to fit the bill by lacking any signs of aging or decay. More astonishingly, however, is how researchers at Kiel University in Germany are now examining this fascinating creature in order to determine how its method of eternal rejuvination may help humans fight both degenerative diseases and even the effects of aging.

The Hydra polyp has achieved apparent eternal life through a method of asexual reproduction in which the polyp buds new life forms rather than reproducing through mating. In order to bud, each polyp contains stem cells that allow for continuous and, more importantly, limitless potential for reproduction.

While humans also produce stem cells, they become less active and effective as we age. The result is the biological degradation, including a loss of muscle mass and genetic plasticity, that we’re all familiar with. While this is fairly well-known, scientists had previously been unable to determine why our stem cells become less numerous and active as we age, but now the research team at Kiel believe that the answer may have been found after studying the Hydra.

“Surprisingly, our search for the gene that causes Hydra to be immortal led us to the so-called FoxO gene,” says Anna-Marei Böhm, author of Kiel University’s study.

The FoxO gene is found in all animals, including humans, but until this discovery, geneticists had no clear understanding of what part FoxO plays in the aging process. The Kiel researchers examined serveral genetically modified Hydra polyps, including Hydras with normal FoxO, enhanced FoxO and inactive FoxO. It was then discovered that the polyps with inactive FoxO showed a significant decrease in number of stem cells.

“Our research group demonstrated for the first time that there is a direct link between the FoxO gene and aging“, says Thomas Bosch from the Zoological Institute of Kiel University, who led the Hydra study. “FoxO has been found to be particularly active in centenarians – people older than one hundred years – which is why we believe that FoxO plays a key role in aging – not only in Hydra but also in humans.”

Using this information, the researchers have come to the conclusion that FoxO allows for the continued maittenance of stem cells, which in turn extends the lifespan of animals. While the obivious implications of this discovery could mean that a modification of FoxO could theoretically lead to immortality in humans, this hypothesis will for now remain conjecture and firmly within the realm of fantasy fiction as any verification would require human genetic manipulation. Regardless, this discovery is likely the first in a long line of developments that should, at the very least, help medical science and rejuvenation therapy in limitless ways.

(via Kiel University)