According to some, the Bible has Adam, of Garden of Eden fame (or notoriety depending on your perspective) living 930 years. Methuselah 969 years, Moses 900 years and so on. Heck, if you are going to take the bible literally that is half the age of the Earth right there in the lives of three men. Science has long been accused of attempting to put mortals on par with god in our explorations of how the Universe works, most especially with advances in medicine. And if this one is not putting us on par with god it is certainly looking toward putting us on par with the lifespan of those men from the bible.
Researchers have created baker’s yeast capable of living to 800 in yeast years without apparent side effects. The basic but important discovery, achieved through a combination of dietary and genetic changes, brings scientists closer to controlling the survival and health of the unit of all living systems: the cell. “We’re setting the foundation for reprogramming healthy life,” says study leader Valter Longo of the University of Southern California.
Longo’s group put baker’s yeast on a calorie-restricted diet and knocked out two genes – RAS2 and SCH9 – that promote aging in yeast and cancer in humans.
“We got a 10-fold life span extension that is, I think, the longest one that has ever been achieved in any organism,” Longo says. Normal yeast organisms live about a week.
“I would say 10-fold is pretty significant,” says Anna McCormick, chief of the genetics and cell biology branch at the National Institute on Aging (NIA) and Longo’s program officer. The NIA funds such research in the hope of extending healthy life span in humans through the development of drugs that mimic the life-prolonging techniques used by Longo and others, McCormick adds.
Baker’s yeast is one of the most studied and best understood organisms at the molecular and genetic level. Remarkably, in light of its simplicity, yeast has led to the discovery of some of the most important genes and pathways regulating aging and disease in mice and other mammals.
Longo’s group next plans to further investigate life span extension in mice. The group is already studying a human population in Ecuador with mutations analogous to those described in yeast.
“People with two copies of the mutations have very small stature and other defects,” Longo says. “We are now identifying the relatives with only one copy of the mutation, who are apparently normal. We hope that they will show a reduced incidence of diseases and an extended life span.”
Longo cautions that, as in the Ecuador case, longevity mutations tend to come with severe growth deficits and other health problems. Finding drugs to extend the human life span without side effects will not be easy.
It’s a long way from yeast to Humans, but the basics of this research have already been applied to mice in other studies and doubled healthy lifespans. It is still a long way from mice to humans, but are we really ready to live even double our current lifespan? There are nations that are forced to limit births because of inadequate resources. Most countries on Earth, certainly those where life extending procedures will be available are based on an economic model shaped like a pyramid with the new generation entering the workforce as the broad base and the older generations progressively narrower toward the top. Studies of nations where this model is not working for a variety of reasons show those countries on the edge of economic collapse as younger and middle generations are shrinking and unable to maintain a spending that supports the economy or a volume of taxes or income that supports older generations and social services.
You need look no further than the United States as the lingering presence of “Baby Boomers” in the work force has not opened up jobs for college graduates over the past decade and their imminent entrance into the Social Security rolls is threatening the solvency of that institution. I am not interested in debating politics here, but the numbers do not lie. There must be a certain number of people paying in for every person taking out and the numbers are not there.
While it will be a long time before this research becomes applicable to humans, and unlikely we will see the sort of extension of lifespan evidenced in yeast, there will still come significant cultural changes as a result of success in this kind of research. Whether those changes are premeditated and willing or reactive and desperate remains to be seen. But if history is any guide, begin investing in Soylent Green stock as soon as it’s IPO is announced.
And since brain tissue does not regenerate like the rest of the body then we are possibly sowing the seeds of the Zombie Apocalypse.