What’s the Secret Behind Turtle’s Longevity?

Discovery Aug 19, 2021

Turtles are famous for their ability to live long (and hopefully happy) lives. Did you know that the oldest turtle on Earth is nearing its 200th jubilee? The turtle named Jonathan is living on an island in the South Atlantic and was named the oldest on-land animal on Earth. Right now Jonathan is 189 years old, but he could live for years, if not decades, more.

Frankly speaking, scientists aren’t sure just how long turtles can live – the study is slowed down by the fact that humans simply don’t live long enough to conduct proper research. The giant turtle named Jonathan was born in 1832, which means he witnessed not only the reign of Queen Victoria but was also alive and well while the Titanic was having its legendary crush.

Dive with green sea turle in Moalboal, Philippines.
Photo by Olga Tsai / Unsplash

Of course, Jonathan didn’t care much about the things happening in the world around him, but he triggered quite a lot of interest in the scientific world. Everyone is asking a very simple question – what makes turtles live for so long?

Although scientists can’t give one distinct answer as to what promotes turtles’ longevity, they have a few theories. One of them is connected with the evolutionary process. Truth is, various other animals depend on turtles’ eggs – raccoons and lots of snake species feed on them regularly. This means turtles need to reproduce all year round and, as a result, they need a longer life span to be able to produce enough offspring to keep the turtle species going.

Scientists studying death and cell damage were also interested in giant turtle’s longevity. Was the secret to their long lives hiding inside their cells?  It turned out some turtle species, along with giant turtles like Jonathan, can protect themselves from cell damage.

Scientist examines the result of a plaque assay, which is a test that allows scientists to count how many flu virus particles (virions) are in a mixture. To perform the test, scientists must first grow host cells that attach to the bottom of the plate, and then add viruses to each well so that the attached cells may be infected. After staining the uninfected cells purple, the scientist can count the clear spots on the plate, each representing a single virus particle.
Photo by CDC / Unsplash

Of course, cell damage itself is unavoidable and is caused by various factors, but these turtles are able to quickly kill off and remove those damaged cells, stopping any further cell damage. This process is called apoptosis and is present not only in turtles but in humans as well. This very process, also known as ‘cell suicide’, is an important part of the immune system that helps protect our bodies when some cells get damaged or attacked by a virus.

What makes turtles so special is that their apoptosis is a more controlled and efficient process that makes them much more resistant to all kinds of damage and disease. Some scientists believe that due to this process even things like cancer can be avoided altogether because the damaged cells get removed from the system almost immediately.

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