There are many products in the cosmetics and wellness industry that make bold antiaging claims, and it can be difficult to navigate which ones are worth your money and which are just expensive moisturizers. Goop is a brand that has come under fire for making unscientific claims about the benefits of keeping a crystal in places where one should never store a crystal or steam the vagina like broccoli.
However, there is legitimate science backing aging and its prevention – in fact, it even has a name of its own. “Biogerontology is the biological aspect of studying aging known as gerontology,” said author Andrew Steele, who wrote Ageless: The New Science of Aging Without Aging in an email to IFLScience. “Gerontology covers all sorts of things from health to social factors that change with age. The biological side deals with understanding and potentially treating the cellular and molecular basis of the aging process.”
As Steele’s book explains, the genesis of this branch of science had an unexpected hero, drawn from a compost heap in 1951. Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner was looking for a type of model that could offer easily digestible insights into neural development. The answer came in the form of a nematode, a kind of worm. Brenner dug a variety in his Cambridge garden but did auditions to find the perfect model for his studies. He eventually settled on a Bristol strain, Caenorhabditis elegans, better known as C. elegans (if that scandalous Twitter debate is something).
“One reason C. elegans are such a useful organism for aging studies is that they don’t live very long,” wrote Steele. “The ‘normal’ strain of C. elegans, known as N2, grows up, reproduces and dies in about two weeks, which speeds up experiments much faster than humans might. You Can Get Your Results In Fourteen Days Instead Of Waiting Fifty Years For Your Subjects To Begin To Die! ”
With such a short life cycle, scientists began shooting what Steele calls a “chemical blunderbuss” into the worms’ DNA to see how – or if – that affected longevity, but early research was a hit and miss . Eventually, these genetic studies uncovered some relevant areas of the genome that changed the life expectancy of the worms.
“The first of these was baptized at the age of 1 for obvious reasons, and the variation discovered contributed about 50% to the worm’s longevity,” said Steele. “After a couple of decades of intervening discoveries, there’s a nice symmetry: the current reigning worm lifespan champion is another mutation of the same Age 1 gene, which makes worms ten times longer – 1000%! – This is an especially notable increase when you consider that the change responsible for this is simply replacing a single letter in the worms’ genetic code. “
Despite our differences, this “model organism” shares a common ancestor with humans, and as a result, part of the kit found under its genetic hood has been preserved under our own. This means that lessons from geriatric worms actually have a significant impact on human biology.
“The Alter-1 gene is part of the ‘insulin signaling pathway,’ the mechanism by which cells detect levels of insulin in the body,” continued Steele. “We also found mutations in insulin signal genes in people who survive to an extraordinary age, often in a gene called FOXO3, which has certain variants that are commonly seen in people aged 100 and over.
“Unfortunately, these variants don’t seem to have the same spectacular tenfold life multiplier in humans as worms! However, there are some single gene mutations in people that can add years to life – and it is arguably thanks in part to the inspiration of C. elegans that we even imagined that you might even have a longevity gene. “
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