Immortality has maintained its popularity in the fiction world for many generations. The ability to live forever is a gift many fantasy writers bestow upon their characters and don’t have to really justify it as long as they play within the rules of the world they create. Science fiction writers, on the other hand, can only give their characters and worlds characteristics that can be justified by science–traits that could come to pass if science advances enough to allow them. Take Jules Verne’s Nautilus in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea for example. When the book was written (published 1879), Verne speculated on what a submarine could be like if the budding technologies around him were used to their fullest potential. And he wasn’t far off, the nuclear powered submarines of today are shockingly similar to Captain Nemo’s boat.
Back on point–immortality from a science fiction perspective. In my upcoming novel, Joshua’s Tree (MuseItUp Publishing late June 2013), one of my characters (won’t tell you who and spoil it) is essentially immortal. How you ask? My answer–telomerase.
Okay, going to geek out and get a bit technical here. When your cells replicate, the DNA in their nuclei looses a bit off the ends. These means that after so many replications, you essentially start falling apart because you’re loosing some of the coding that tells the cells of your body how to do their jobs. Telomerase makes telomeres, which are repeating units of DNA that hang out on the ends of the long strands of DNA in the nuclei of every cell in your body. When the DNA replicates, the otherwise useless telomeres on the ends of the cells are lost, and you don’t loose any of that critical information that makes your body run properly (and stay young). After the new cells with new DNA in them are made, telomerase kicks on and makes new telomeres to protect the DNA the next time the cells replicate. For some reason, as we get older, telomerase starts shutting down in different cells throughout our body. Without telomerase, we get no telomeres, pieces of our DNA start getting lost, and we get old. The character in my science fiction novel gains his immortality by simply learning how to keep all the telomerase active in every cell in his body.
How long before geneticist figure out how to keep telomerase active so we can all be immortal? It already stays active in the male gonads for their entire life, so it isn’t a far stretch. And, what if they can already keep telomerase active and could make people immortal? Might not be such a good idea because it would result in overpopulation and would probably cause economic chaos because the people who lived the longest would amass the most wealth and the younger generations would be hard pressed to find a job. Hmmm … sounds like a dystopian novel waiting to happen.