DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Today we want to tell you about a tiny creature that has quietly revolutionized our understanding of life. Some people believe that this creature could provide a clue to staving off some of the major diseases of aging. It is a creature called the hydra. It's about a quarter of an inch long and lives in freshwater ponds and streams. It looks basically like a tiny squid with its head covered in tentacles. Invisibilia's Lulu Miller tells us its tale.
LULU MILLER, BYLINE: So this story starts back in the 1980s with a strange rumor that was being passed around scientific circles about the hydra.
DANIEL MARTINEZ: People claimed they were immortal.
MILLER: This is Daniel Martinez, who was a grad student at Stony Brook University when he heard this rumor.
MARTINEZ: So I set out to prove that hydra could not be immortal because I believed that that was not possible and that any animal, you know - like a good animal, hydra should die.
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MILLER: Now, to be clear, it is possible to kill a hydra. You could starve one to death or burn it, freeze it, asphyxiate it. But what the scientists were claiming was that if left to its own devices, a hydra would never die. Its body would never wear out. It would just keep going and going forever. And that was what Daniel wanted to debunk.
MARTINEZ: Animals should die.
MILLER: So he collects a bunch of hydra from a pond on Long Island, carts them all back to his lab and begins the process of waiting. A few months pass. He meets a woman.
MAGGIE PARKINS: We met in a tango class, actually.
MILLER: They decided to go out for coffee, which turned into dinner, which turned into...
PARKINS: Hydra. It was like 11 o'clock or something. And he's like, you know, this is weird, but I got to go to the lab.
MILLER: So she goes with him, watches as he feeds and changes the water for over a hundred hydra. And he explains to her that, soon, this experiment will be over.
MARTINEZ: Everybody eventually dies.
MILLER: And then they returned to their date. Months turned to years.
MARTINEZ: Feed them, wait, clean them.
MILLER: They get married.
MARTINEZ: In Martha's Vineyard.
PARKINS: It was under a tree.
MARTINEZ: And the house overlooking the ocean.
MILLER: But they rush home pretty quickly because...
PARKINS: Got to go to the lab (laughter).
MILLER: And it goes on like this for four long years.
MARTINEZ: So I was beginning to, you know, be convinced there is something very unusual about this animal.
MILLER: Because while four years might not sound that long, there is this pattern in nature.
STEVE AUSTAD: It's true of mammals. It's true of birds.
MILLER: This is Steve Austad, an expert in animal aging at the University of Alabama, Birmingham.
AUSTAD: Smaller ones are shorter lived, and bigger ones are longer lived.
MILLER: So little worms and bugs...
AUSTAD: They would live a matter of a few months.
MILLER: Some whales living centuries.
AUSTAD: Yeah, right.
MILLER: And while there are a few factors that can buy a creature some extra time for its size, there's only so far that an animal can go without aging and dying - except, it seemed, the hydra.
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MILLER: Because, see, Daniel was reporting that the hydra were not aging at all. They weren't withering or growing weak. There was no sign of any physical deterioration whatsoever.
AUSTAD: For something that's a quarter of an inch in length, it's absolutely shocking.
MILLER: Like a human living to a thousand years old without a single wrinkle. So back in the spring of 1998, Daniel finally published his results, saying, essentially, that when left to their own devices...
MARTINEZ: Hydra are immortal.
MILLER: And the reaction in the scientific community?
AUSTAD: I think few people believed him.
MILLER: You didn't?
AUSTAD: I didn't because I didn't think - I couldn't understand any kind of evolutionary logic.
MILLER: But over time, as more scientists replicated the experiment and saw the same thing, the hydra started getting a lot of attention in the media and in the biotech and pharma world.
JAMES PEYER: In fact, one of my friends who started a company that's now called Life Biosciences, they started out - and their original name for their company was Hydra.
MILLER: This is James Peyer, the owner of a multimillion-dollar biopharma company that is hoping to slow aging in humans, a pursuit that James says he cares about because if you could figure out how to do it, you could stave off the onset of a whole slew of age-related disorders.
PEYER: Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, bone weakening, heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
MILLER: The science still has a long way to go. But Peyer predicts that by 2030...
PEYER: We're going to see a dramatic uptick of healthy lifespan.
MILLER: And while researchers are looking everywhere for a clue, some of them continue to focus on the hydra, looking at its stem cell production or deep within its tiny hydra microbiome. And Daniel, the guy who was the first to confirm its immortality to the world, when you ask him which biochemical secret he is looking to mine in those initial specimens...
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MARTINEZ: I put them in alcohol.
MILLER: So you killed them. You killed them?
MILLER: You didn't wait to see if they would keep going?
MARTINEZ: Because, you know, after feeding an animal three times a week in their mouths with brine shrimp, you know, every other day for four years - and I prefer...
MARTINEZ: ...To kill them.
MILLER: And what's more, he told me he wasn't interested in studying immortality any further.
MILLER: You sound so unenthused about the result (laughter).
MARTINEZ: Well, it's just - OK. I guess I'm - I don't know. I just - you know, I do the best I can. I do good science. But I, you know - this is just one finding. I mean, the world is a little more interesting than just science. So if we were talking about, you know, motorcycling or poetry, I would probably be a little more enthusiastic. But this is just...
MILLER: Are you having a career crisis?
MARTINEZ: (Laughter) No. It's just - I'm not married to the hydra being immortal. If they are, fantastic. I was the one that say that in a paper, so that's great.
MILLER: But he doesn't want to look into the hydra to learn about us. Instead, he just wants to learn more about the creature itself, about its development, its distribution. These days, he's been traveling all over the globe - yes, sometimes on motorcycle - to collect hydra and see which species live where.
So then, the last of - do you have a little hydra with you?
MARTINEZ: Yes, I do.
MILLER: To conclude the interview, I just had Daniel hold up a tiny hydra that he had brought in a glass jar...
(SOUNDBITE OF FINGER TAPPING)
MILLER: ...And look at it.
So how long do you think this one will live?
(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL PEMBERTON'S "STAR-KISSED")
MARTINEZ: I don't know, maybe hundreds of years.
MILLER: You think it could?
MILLER: Yeah. Do you envy it at all?
MARTINEZ: Not at all. No.
MILLER: He says he prefers to spend his life living it instead of trying to extend it.
MILLER: And with that, he hung up the phone...
MILLER: ...To move onto something more interesting.
GREENE: That was Lulu Miller. A new season of the NPR podcast Invisibilia is out right now. And you can check out Lulu's new book. It is called "Why Fish Don't Exist."
(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL PEMBERTON'S "STAR-KISSED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.