Want to live into your hundreds? If you’re young and fertile, you have to decide now whether you want to take a drug that will extend your life by a few decades.
Researchers at Stanford Medical School have discovered that blocking the activity of certain genes can extend the lives of roundworms by up to 30 percent – but only if the worms are fertile. This is further confirmation of what many scientists had already suspected, which is that the key to life extension is tied to the reproductive system. Geneticist Anne Brunet, co-author on the new study, explained:
It makes a sort of sense that the reproductive system would be involved in life span, since that is really the only ‘immortal’ part of an organism. In that context, the body is just the mortal envelope.
She and a team of scientists discovered that roundworms lived longer if they blocked the action of several different genes, most notably a gene called Ash-2. This gene is special because it regulates how other genes get expressed – it’s a kind of master-switch gene. When Ash-2 is silenced, several genes related to the germline – cells used for reproduction – remain silent too. And somehow this extends life.
We still don’t know exactly how this works mechanistically, but we’ve shown that the presence of the germline is absolutely essential for this longevity extension to happen.
In other words: As long as you’re still fertile, with a functioning germline, shutting down Ash-2 might help you live longer. If you’re a worm. But there is enough overlap between human and worm DNA that this could provide a key to tinkering with human lifespans too.