Long before it was even scientifically viable, the human race has been searching for ways to extend our life expectancy. Now we may have finally found the answer. The surprising part is that it involves taking away something that’s already inside us. Something that, for better or for worse, makes us who we are: our genes.
For the last ten years, scientists have been attempting to identify the genes that cause aging in humans. And after recent tests done on various strains of yeast, they found that there are 238 genes that, when removed, significantly increase the lifespan of the yeast cells. In some circumstances, the lifespan of the cells was increased by as much as 60 percent.
It is now the hope of these scientists that the same type of genetic deletion can be effected in humans, a possibility which, so far, is looking hopeful. Surprisingly, many of the genes found in yeast are similar to those found in humans.
Brian Kennedy, a lead author of the study and president and CEO of the Buck Institute of Research on Aging in the US, explained the yeast cell study in his words, saying, “This study looks at aging in the context of the whole genome and gives us a more complete picture of what aging is. It also sets up a framework to define the entire network that influences aging in this organism.”
The University of Washington helped the Buck Institute with the study and together they monitored the development of nearly 4,700 yeast cell strains. Exactly one gene was deleted from each strain, after which the time it took each strain to replicate was closely monitored. Scientists were reportedly looking specifically at how many daughter cells the mother cells could produce by cell division.
Kennedy again explained the process more clearly, saying, “We had a small needle attached to a microscope, and we used that needle to tease out the daughter cells away from the mother every time it divided and then count how many times the mother cells divide. We had several microscopes running all the time.”
You still may be confused as to why finding these genes in yeast cells is good news for us. In lieu of me trying to explain it to you, I’ll let Brian Kennedy take this one. “Almost half of the genes we found that affect aging [in yeast] are conserved in mammals,” he said. “In theory, any of these factors could be therapeutic targets to extend healthspan. What we have to do now is figure out which ones are amenable to targeting.”
In other words, this is huge news. From here, we just need to determine which genes are capable of being safely altered or removed. One gene called LOS1 that helps build proteins in our bodies seems to have a lot to do with it.
In the end, this long and tedious study of yeast cells produced results. Though some of the 238 genes identified were already known to be linked with aging, 189 of them are new finds. We have a more complete genomic picture of what causes aging than ever before, we just have to figure out how to use it. That’s power.