The Eternal Life of Lobsters

Graphic by Robert Samec

Imagine you have the opportunity to live a full life without ever aging. You could maintain your youthful glow and remain in your prime ’til the day you die––no deterioration of health, no loss of faculties, and no gray hairs, no matter how old you get. The only catch? You’re a member of Homarus americanus, a ten-legged and somewhat frightening crustacean colloquially known as a lobster. 

The oldest lobster on record lived to be around 140 years old. That means you will likely be outlived by a lobster––many lobsters, even. Does this information frighten you? Anger you? Trigger a paralyzing awareness of your own mortality? 

In recent years, the myth of lobster immortality has circulated widely on social media, with claims that lobsters are unable to die of natural causes due to their ability to indefinitely repair their own DNA. The theory further extrapolates that lobsters cannot die unless they are killed, and the only reason we don’t see massive populations of hundred-year-old lobsters crawling around our seas is because we kill such great numbers of them in order to satisfy our apparently insatiable appetite for their meat. Tangentially related to this is an even more widely-believed myth that lobsters also mate for life, popularized by the hit TV show Friends with the famous line, “He’s her lobster!” 

Lobsters are, indeed, biologically immortal. They are thought to possess an endless supply of the enzyme telomerase, which repairs the repetitive and protective sequences of DNA at the ends of chromosomes known as telomeres. In most organisms, including humans, the telomeres are shortened each time a cell divides, causing eventual damage to the chromosomes and thus moving forward the process of aging. Most organisms produce the telomerase enzyme only in the early years of life. Because lobsters are capable of replenishing their telomeres indefinitely, they don’t experience normal aging––their bodies do not deteriorate but rather continue to increase in size and maintain strength as they get older. However, contrary to popular belief, lobsters still pass away due to natural causes, and often do. 

Limitless self-repairing of DNA strands comes with downsides. Ironically, the lobster’s inability to stop growing larger and stronger is its Achilles’ heel. Lobsters may grow continuously in size, but their shells do not, so they must molt and produce a new shell each time they outgrow their current one. This takes a significant amount of energy, and each progressively bigger shell requires a greater energy input to produce. At a certain point, the metabolic energy needed to grow successively larger shells is more than it can give, and the lobster collapses from exhaustion, killed by its own seeming agelessness.

Although the myths surrounding lobster immortality aren’t quite correct, one has to wonder why exactly we want so badly for them to be true. As a species, we do have a well-documented fixation with the idea of living forever; centuries of fantasy stories and science fiction novels about immortal creatures and the pursuit of eternal life demonstrate as much. In fact, Stanford scientists recently developed a process for extending human telomeres, a groundbreaking procedure with potential applications for treating disease and extending the lifespans of healthy human beings, bringing us dangerously close to the borders of scientific ethics. 

Perhaps we are drawn to the thought of lobsters conquering death because we feel that if such a small, strange-looking, and seemingly insignificant creature can do it, so can we. Given the repeated warnings from science fiction of the potentially disastrous consequences of achieving human immortality, it might be time to stop projecting onto lobsters and start coming to terms with our own mortality. After all, were we to achieve quasi-immortality à la Homarus americanus, we might find that our seeming immortality itself could bring about our demise. 

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