If the name Turritopsis nutricula doesn’t roll off your tongue, try remembering “immortal jellyfish,” the nickname of this species of long-lived critters that are migrating from the sea to the science lab.

Originally the immortal jellyfish were native to the Caribbean, but now they’re popping up in oceans around the world — because, researchers suggest, of their extended life period and the fact that they can easily hitch rides in cargo ships’ ballasts.

All jellies begin their lives in the polyp (juvenile) stage and mature into the more recognizable medusa stage, but T. nutricula are unique in that they can revert from the medusa stage back to the polyp stage whenever they are stressed by famine or other unfavorable conditions — theoretically making them immortal.

Right here at Mission Bay, researcher Deepak Srivastava, director of the Roddenberry Center for Stem Cell Biology and Medicine at the Gladstone Institute, has engineered a way to effectively do in a lab what the immortal jellyfish does naturally: reprogram cells.

The immortal jellyfish provide a natural example of transdifferation, an unusual process in which one type of cell turns itself into another, Srivastava said.

Srivastava’s lab has leveraged knowledge from developmental biology to reprogram non-muscle connective tissue in the heart directly into cells that function like heart muscle cells for regenerative purposes.

“The fact that [T. nutricula] does this gives us added hope that in our case, we might be really able to do this to heart cells, and others might be able to do this to brain cells or spinal cord cells for spinal cord injuries,” he said.

Two years ago, Srivastava’s team of scientists created a healthy beating heart cell in a mouse, using the same mechanism as the immortal jelly.

This video was produced for CNS News, a news show by students at U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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