Scientists spend a lot of time reading papers to stay on top of the latest discoveries. So when I stumbled upon the headline: “Russian Scientist Injects Himself with 3.5-Million-Year-Old Bacteria, Reckons He Might Now Live Forever” that meant one of the two following things: one, this guy is about to win a Nobel Prize a la Marshall and Warren, who showed that most stomach ulcers were caused by the Helicobacter pylori bacterium when Marshall swallowed a vial of the stuff and took himself to hospital for the subsequent ulcer; or two, Vice may not be a particularly reputable scientific publication.
As it turns out, it meant the latter. The Bacillus F bacteria was found by geocryologists in the permafrost of Mammoth Mounter, Siberia. It had survived for millions of years in the ice. While treating mice with the bacteria seemed to increase longevity and fertility, the reported effects on humans are purely anecdotal. That is to say, this Anatoli Brouchkov scientist guy injected himself just for kicks, felt more energetic and now believes the bacteria may hold the key to immortality.
Although this seems farfetched, chief futurist at Google, Ray Kurzweil, suggests that immortality is possible within our lifetimes. Our understanding of the human genome now allows us to edit it in previously inconceivable ways. Kurzweil suggests that biomedicine may no longer be just a science, but an information technology where we can add, subtract or reprogram our genes or the “software of life” in more beneficial ways. He predicts that by 2020 we will start using nanobots to bolster the immune system, and technology will add years to our life expectancies.
This extension of life will be accompanied by an expansion of life in an era known as ‘the Singularity’. By 2045 when non-biological intelligence will become a billion times more powerful than all human intelligence today, Kurzweil predicts biotechnology may allow our brains to connect to “the cloud” and become more intelligent and powerful. Recreational activities will also develop to combat the tedium of life everlasting. Your favourite cyberpunk visions may become a reality yet (I’m voting for Ghost in the Shell).
Transhumanism and sentient cyborgs aside, there are easier ways to live forever. Among the world’s oldest people, most are women, several of whom attribute their longevity in part to avoiding men. “They’re just more trouble than they’re worth,”said Jessie Gallan, who lived to be 109. Perhaps she too was aware that domestic violence is the number one contributor to death, disability and illness in Victorian women aged 15 to 44.
Diet is also considered a major factor. The Indigenous peoples of the Ryukyu Islands of Japan have the longest life expectancy in the world, making the Okinawa diet the object of some interest. It mostly consists of vegetables, Okinawan sweet potato and pork, and contains much less rice, fish, meat and sugar than the standard Japanese diet. With the shift away from the traditional diet towards more Western and Japanese patterns however, longevity has decreased.
Certain animals also display biological immortality, meaning their chronological age and biological aging processes are de-coupled. Contrary to popular belief, lobsters do not live forever. However, they are able to live for a very long time thanks to the enzyme telomerase. Telomeres are like protective caps on the ends of chromosomes. These shorten over time after cell division. Telomerase repairs telomeres, preventing them from shortening and damaging the DNA, leading to aging. The good news is this stops lobsters from aging. The bad news is this may cause cancers in humans.
Say we could live forever, would we want to though? A very rigorous Facebook poll of my distinguished peers revealed that 2 out of 7 would want to live forever. Major concerns included boredom and loneliness. Some of the ethical implications of immortality include increasing the world population, strain on the world’s resources and the furthering social and economic inequalities with unequal life expectancies.
In any case, if any of this is true then there may be time for me to get even with the casting director of Ghost in the Shell after all.