COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — In 2017, a massive 22-pound lobster named Louie, estimated by some sources to be 132 years old at the time, was pardoned after spending 20 years at a seafood restaurant in Island Park, New York.
He was later deposited in the nearby coastal waters, complete with a ceremonial send-off.
This story was revived in a recent Twitter conversation about the longevity of the crustacean, which has only been a dining delicacy in the United States since the mid-19th century, suggested lobsters may be immortal (Technically, Twitter user @JUNIUS_64 theorized the lobsters “made a deal with the devil for conditional immortality and it backfired on them”).
The sort of “immortality” of lobsters is linked to telomeres–a structure on the end of a chromosome–that is constantly repaired in lobsters.
When human cells divide, a telomere becomes shorter. Telomeres protect the DNA in our cells, which degrades when the telomere is shortened.
Yet in lobsters, telomeres retain their ability to protect the DNA.
“Lobsters aren’t immortal, but in them, an enzyme called telomerase that repairs DNA copy errors, is active throughout their life (in us and in most animals, this is active only early in life.),” noted Marymegan Daly, director of the Ohio State University Museum of Biological Diversity.
“Having telomerase means that cells made after 10 million copies of the original DNA are as good as the tenth or hundredth copy,”
Dr. Daly, a professor in the Department of Evolution, Ecology & Organismal Biology, said that lobsters get larger and larger and do not have a “full grown size.”
Daly added that unrestricted growth ultimately ends the lengthy lifespan of a lobster.
“This size is actually what eventually does them in, because it gets too energetically expensive to grow a new skeleton after molting the old one–or they get too big to support their bodies during the skeleton-less time between shedding.”
The lobster population off the East Coast has increased dramatically since the late 1980s, while also shifting north with warmer water.
The current hotbed of activity is the Gulf of Maine, where a record 127.8 million pounds were harvested in 2013. The former favored zone for lobster fishing was off the coast of central New Jersey.
Higher sea surface temperatures are conducive to females laying more eggs, and at a faster rate after molting (shedding) begins by early July, when the water warms into the mid-50s.