A planarian is a species one of many non-parasitic flatworms. Planaria are common to many parts of the world, living in both salt-water and in freshwater ponds and rivers. They are remarkable creatures. Some planarians exhibit an extraordinary ability to regenerate lost body parts. For example, a planarian split either lengthwise or crosswise will regenerate into two separate individuals.
Recently, one particular species of planarian, S. mediterranea has emerged as the species of choice for modern molecular biological and genomic research due to its diploid chromosomes and the existence of both asexual and sexual strains. Recent genetic screens utilizing double-stranded RNA technology have uncovered 240 genes that affect regeneration in S. mediterranea. Many of these genes have “Orthologs” in the human genome. Orthologs are genes in different species that evolved from a common ancestral gene by speciation. Normally, orthologs retain the same function in the course of evolution. Identification of orthologs is critical for reliable prediction of gene function in newly sequenced genomes.
The life cycle and traits of planarians make them a model system for investigating a number of biological processes, many of which may well have implications for human health and disease. Even immortality. However, the flatworm’s regeneration ability has attracted a lot of attention. It may pave the way for humans to gain the ability to regenerate lost limbs and perhaps even organs. More recently Planarians are being examined in reserach into ageing. That is because these animals have an apparently limitless regenerative capacity, and the asexual animals seem to maintain their “telomerase” levels throughout their lifetime, making them effectively immortal.
Telomerase is an enzyme, active chiefly in tumours and reproductive cells, that facilitates cell division and may account for the immortality of some cancer cells.
As we humans share a number of genes with Planaria, in theory it may be possible to use the planaria genes in bio-engineering the human body, so that we too can regenerate and have infinite longevity.
A lot of people think there is no chance of celebrating their 100th birthday. But what about their 200th birthday? Inconceivable? Not at all!
Look at some facts: Life expectancy on average was a mere two decades-20 years- a thousand years ago. It leapt to 37 by 1800. Life expectancy is now about 80. Could you add another 120 years to that to make it 200? It is possible.
Increasing life expectancy is big business right now. The very rich don’t want to doe just yet; so people like Larry Ellison (pictured above), Larry Page and Sergey Brin are investing large amounts of their considerable accumulated fortunes into helping them, and us, all live longer.
For those of us who are less than half-way through our lives, assuming we live to 85, we may be planning to retire at 65-70, and then have 15-20 years of retirement before we pop our clogs. But maybe that’s just too pessimistic. And a longer life is now not about being a frail 95 year old in a nursing home. A long, technology-enhanced life could now mean you being fitter and healthier at 150 than you were at 20. Really!
You can seriously increase your chances of living a long life by considering how you can take advantage of upcoming health technologies:
The first thing you have to do is to stay as healthy as possible, with exercise, nutrition and current medicine. Do it now, not tomorrow. Neither the food industry nor the pharmaceutical industry are designed or optimised to benefit life expectancy. They are optimised and designed to deliver the best rewards to shareholders. Choose you food and medicines carefully. Consult your doctor too. He or she should be able to give you advice, or refer you to a nutrition health professional.
The next step is to be ready for DNA reprogramming. Yes, DNA is reprogrammable, just like computers. We can start to programme our bodies away from disease. In the next 10-20 years it is expected that we will be able to re-engineer new body parts. There are literally hundreds of drugs and processes in the pipeline that will modify the course of many of the diseases we face today. Clinical applications now at the cutting edge will be routine in the early 2020s. And cheaper.
Finally be prepared for the Nanotech revolution which will be our ticket to living to 200 years… and beyond. Perhaps immortality. The use of miniscule robots in our bodies to augment our immune system will be technically possible. At the current rate of technological change we are only decades away from achieving these breakthroughs. In essence, this would mean that no disease could kill us.
But accidents and war will still take their toll, unless the human race suddenly changes the way it thinks about its fellow man (and woman). Technology can’t perform miracles!
Let’s imagine (or scroll forward if you think it definitely will happen) we manage to cure ageing, both in the body and in the mind. We have immortality. Nice. But how would we be able to cope with the infinitely accumulating number of memories and things to remember?
Memory is a funny old thing. We do get more forgetful as we get older. Yet we still have retained and lodged forever in our memory certain events, numbers, faces, facts and triggers. Even though brain cells die at a quicker rate as we get older, we must assume that immortality will include the ability for the brain to regenerate itself. So our capacity to think is unimpaired because our brains will remain functioning.
But what of memory? Research indicates that there is a certain part of the brain where memories reside. But it is of a finite size. As more and more experiences and memories are accumulated throughout the centuries and aeons of our immortality, that part of the brain will just become clogged and full and unable to absorb any more information. It would also be difficult if not impossible to recall information because there are so many full rooms,corridors and halls all full of filing cabinets, full of folders, full of papers.
Your brain can keep all that stuff organized for a while (say, the span of most of a normal human lifetime) but it’s not like you can go into your brain and just delete files like cleaning up a hard drive of a computer.
Your immortal life and experiences may be infinite, but your brain’s ability to store and recall them is not. After a relatively short time into your immortality, as early as 300 years old, your brain will be chock-a-block piled up with information/junk like one of the habitual hoarders who can never clean up or throw anything out.
The only possible solution would appear to be to connect to technology that could store, sort and recall all that information- and perhaps delete it to. “Total Recall” anyone? So perhaps at 30o years old plus you’ll be permanently wired in to a data/memory dump/recall system. But your biological brain’s ability to process the information and retain it, would not be expanded once it has received the input from the memory card or whatever. And of course you might forget that you have stored the information remotely and so the whole system falls down again!
Immortality? Not as easy as it sounds!
Gabrielle (Gabby) Williams from Billings, Montana, United States, is 9 years old, but weighs a mere 11 pounds. She has the appearance of an infant and needs constant attention as if she were newborn- having her nappies changed and being fed a number of times each day. Her skin is baby-like and her hair is fine-textured. There has been some slight growth over four decades- she now needs clothes to fit a baby of 3-6 months instead of up to three months.
People with this condition are very rare- scientists haven’t even got a name for it. Only two other people with a similar condition have been found: a 29-year-old Florida man with the appearance of a 10-year-old, and a 31-year-old Brazilian woman who still looks like a three year old.
So far the search for clues as to why these individuals don’t age and what they have in common have not uncovered their secrets.
Dr Richard F Walker (pictured above) has been studying Gabby’s case in the hopes of finding a reason for the arrested growth and perhaps unlock a path to eternal youth and immortality. He is retired from the University of Florida Medical School and now does his research at All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg.
Dr Walker has called the condition “developmental inertia”. He said that without the process of growth and ageing, a human would never develop and remain stunted and unfulfilled. But if there is a gene responsible for this condition, and it could be identified, isolated and modified, then there is a possibility that the most obvious effects of ageing could be arrested or slowed considerably.
Walker said he believes he has found one of the genes responsible- a mutation on the second female X chromosome. The trick would be to allow growth to a certain level, for example maturity, and then halt further growth and ageing. This “biologically immortality” would not prevent people dying from disease and in accidents. They would not become superheroes.
Gabby’s parents admitted that they were concerned at first that Dr Walker was using their child to find the fountain of youth for vanity purposes, but he explained to them that the research was focused on helping people who struggle with the hardships that come with old age.
Gabby’s mother, Mary, said:
“Alzheimer’s is one of the scariest diseases out there. If what Gabrielle holds inside of her would find a cure — for sure we would be a part of the research project. We have faith that Dr. Walker and the scientific community do find something focused more on the disease of aging, rather than making you 35 for the rest of your life.”
Dr Walker is currently Editor-in-Chief of Clinical Interventions in Ageing, a source of evidence-based information for practitioners of age-management medicine. He also heads a private consulting company providing regulatory and scientific services for physicians and other health-care professionals. Gabrielle Williams’ condition has since been confirmed to have been the result of a genetic mutation. Emulating or stimulating that mutation has, so far, evaded scientists and researchers, including Dr Walker.
In a recent study by Harvard Medical School, which used data going back to the 1970s, Professor of medicine Francine Grodstein concluded that “diet makes a difference”. Plain and simple.
“The higher our body weight and body mass index, the less likely we are to live older, happier, healthier lives,” she said.
Well you may have preferred to hear about a breakthrough in a longevity magic bullet, or transferring DNA from animals that live for over 150 years to humans, but there’s no getting away from it. If you reduce your food intake by just a fifth, you will live a longer life. This has been shown in animals too- reducing bodyweight by 20% in mice increased their lifespans.
William Mair, HSPH assistant professor of genetics and complex diseases, said a study that has gained a lot of attention found that reducing body weight by 20 percent in mice increased their longevity. It is even true for insects such as the fruit fly.
By cutting down our food intake and body mass, we won’t live forever, but the quality of life should be better for longer. In other words all the morbidities that can afflict us will be pushed back to the last years of our lives.
Turning to avoiding mental disease, a promising area in warding off dementia involves taking up a personal challenge such as learning to play an instrument or to speak another language, said Thomas Perls, a Boston University professor of medicine and director of the New England Centenarian Study. However building up these mental functional reserves that seem to stave off or delay dementia don’t seem to apply to everyone. The brainiest most mentally advanced people can still succumb to dementia.
There has been a buzz in the “can we extend human lives to 200 years” department following the catching of a 200 year old Shortracker Rockfish off Alaska’s coast. That fish was born there two centuries ago- before Alaska was a US State. It is the oldest Shortracker ever caught. It must also have been very lucky because many are hunted and eaten by predatory fish and so never see out their full life-span.
With advances in stem cell research and DNA, this is yet another animal, like the naked mole rat, that may harbour secrets as to how we could manipulate our bodies to reduce ageing and promote longevity. Like the mole rat, this fish is no beauty to look at. It looks like a bloated shimmering orange goldfish.
Rockfish are some of the world’s oldest living fish, matched only by equally long-lived fish like the sturgeon, an ancient fish found in North America that can live to be more than a century old. There must be something special in the fish’s make up, because even discounting accidental death and being eaten by other fish or caught for food, most species of fish only live 2-8 years.
The previous record age for a caught rockfish was about 175-years-old, and that fish, at about 32.5-inches-long, was smaller than this latest catch.
Let’s hope the fish is donated now to scientific longevity research, and not end up in a fish pie!
There’s a lot in the news at the moment about the search for immortality. People are living longer, and they say that someone has already been born that will live to be 150-200 years old. In fact the main funders for the search for immortality are billionaires. When you stop and think and think about it, the reasons is obvious. They have more to lose when they die. You can’t take it with you! The most you can do is bequeath it to your heirs.. and you won’t be able to see them enjoy it. So billionaires want to live longer so they can enjoy their wealth for longer. That’s why they spend so much on research, looking for the elixir of eternal life.
Was it always the way that the rich sought paths to immortality to longer enjoy their richness? Yes. But they got ripped off a lot more!
In ancient China many all-powerful emperors died from consuming mercury-based potions given to them under the promise that it would make them live forever. Mercury is indeed a strange-looking substance- a shiny silver liquid metal. Looks like it could be the elixir of life… but no. It gives a slow and agonising departure from this world.
Fast-forward to 1492. There on his deathbed was Pope Innocent VIII. Three 10 year old boys were paid a ducat each to donate their blood to try to keep the old god-botherer alive. The boys died. And of course so did the Pontiff- probably from blood poisoning. I wonder which of them went to heaven?
During the next two centuries centuries, it was the turn of thousands of European alchemists to hoodwink and swindle rich aristocrats with bogus potions for eternal life. These elixirs (which often included mercury and arsenic) often gave off noxious and poisonous vapours that would eventually kill the alchemist (as well as failing to prolong the life of the Aristo).
After World War I, thousands of rich old men (probably the donkeys who led the lions) opted for a more biological and glandular fountain of youth. They arranged for chimpanzee testicles to be grafted into their scrotums at Sergei Voronoff’s exclusive medical clinic on the French Riviera. Ouch. Must have been an issue for the undertaker- whether to remove the clearly failed extra-testicular activity, or leave it for all to see as they lay naked in the coffin! In the picture below Sergei and his brother George perform their quad-gonads operation.
In 1971, researchers declared that science would unravel all the mysteries of ageing within five years. All you needed was the appropriate injection of finance… Alas, that didn’t come to be. In fact five years later all we got was the San Francisco Chronicle reporting that “human life could be extended to 800 years.” That same year, an outfit called Microwave Instrument Co. in Del Mar, California, said they’d have immortality drugs on the market within three years. They saw a connection between agitating the molecules of blood through microwaves and immortality. Oops. Next!
It would seem that, if scientists, researchers, biologists and clinicians are to be believed, we should have found cures for many, if not all, of the things that kills us, in about a century. That’s Alzheimer’s, cancers, degenerative diseases, and even ageing. So in a 100 years time, there we all are, not growing old, not falling ill, and virtually immortal. What will we do? Go out and enjoy the rest of our lives, secure in the knowledge that we will not die. Unless of course we suffer an accident.
As good as surgery and medicine will be in 100 years time, it will not be able to bring you back from the dead if you suffer a fatal accident. Drowning at sea, a nasty pile-up on the motorway, a plane crash, a fire, a fall off of a ladder that cause brain trauma- the list is almost endless. What would we do to avoid accidentally terminating our immortality? Here’s a (admittedly pessimistic) take on this:
We would try to avoid all situations where a fatal accident could occur. Why risk shortening your never-ending life-span? We would become a world of risk-avoiders. Why risk travelling to a foreign land? Just watch it on TV in your secure air-tight protected shell of a world. Why risk physical inter-action with other humans? Many of them are mad, or dangerous, so why risk it? Contact them solely through the internet video. Much safer. Physical activity? No thanks! Cycling, driving, running, all could lead to an accident or some sort that threatens your one trillion tomorrows.
We would all settle into comfy armchairs alone in a room secure from the perils outside the door. The future a lonely sedentary existence that is really half-life. A life without the potential for danger is a life without the potential for quality. A living death?
It’s long been recognised that red wine, when taken in moderation, has a good effect on the human body. Indeed, there are a number of people in their 80’s who take a glass of red a day. The wine contains resveratrol, an organic chemical, which is believed to have an anti-ageing effect through boosting the activity of a protein SIRT1.
A pharmaceutical firm, GSK, are preparing to launch a concentrated and synthesised version of resveratrol. It is being tested on people with certain medical conditions such as Type 2 Diabetes and the serious skin condition; psoriasis. But it could have a life-prolonging effect on all of us.
David Sinclair, professor of genetics at Harvard University, has said that ageing might not actually be an “irreversible affliction”.
He said: “Some of us could live to 150, but we won’t get there without more research.”
It seems that increasing SIRT1 activity improves how well our cells operate, making them less sluggish. Mice, bees and flies have been given the SIRT1-boosting compounds and have lived up to 50% longer.
Writing in the journal Science, Prof Sinclair claimed to have performed experiments which showed these resveratrol-based compounds were having a direct effect on health. There have already been promising results in some trials with diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and heart failure, Type II diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, fatty liver disease, cataracts, osteoporosis, muscle wasting, sleep disorders and inflammatory diseases such as psoriasis, arthritis and colitis.
Current trials not only are looking at how the compounds might help treat these age-related diseases, but if they can prevent their occurrence in healthy people. This is where it is possible, by reducing the likelihood of them occurring, that people on the drug will stay healthy for longer, and double their life span.
Don’t try this at home! Researchers have been conducting controlled experiments using volunteers and the fairy-tail red and white mushroom, the Fly Agaric.
Given in small quantities, many of those interviewed experienced memories they had forgotten about, usually associated with their early childhood. Playground incidents, seeing a steam train for the first time, a Christmas unwrapping… Many of those interviewed swore that these were genuine memories unlocked by the ‘shroom.
The next stage of the experiment was to increase the amount of the mushroom given to the volunteers. This had to be undertaken under strict medical supervision because too much Fly Agaric and the mouth and throat could become numb, and close due to anaphalactic shock. A proportion of those who had the higher dose of mushroom reported memories that were not of their childhood, and were not of their existing lives at all. They wrote down what they had “remembered” and were then interviewed by psycho-analysts to test the veracity of their memories. They all appeared to be genuine and not manufactured.
Researchers are preparing a report to publish but have already claimed that the mushroom has unlocked memories of previous existences that were locked and retained in some immortal part of the soul- it could not be the brain because the brain and body dies and rots. However the theory is that like a cloud-based IT application, upon being re-born, your characteristics from previous lives are re-loaded into your body as you develop in the womb. However the memories from previous lives are not normally accessible and are screened out. But the Fly Agaric mushroom stimulates a small part of the brain where these past-life memories are normally concealed.
Could this be evidence that we are immortal and have lived previous lives? The research is being peer-reviewed before publishing, and a number of volunteers are repeating the experiment to confirm the results.
But don’t try this yourselves. The Fly Agaric is a poisonous mushroom, and this experiment could only be conducted under strictly controlled medical conditions.
Most people, of most faiths, and even some atheists, believe that all or part of the body, mind and/or soul survives, transcending death. Is this because of man’s evolutionary brain, conditioning from our parents, priests or peers? Taking an impassionate look at the hard facts, the evidence, there is virtually no solid evidence that humans experience life after death and immortality for their core being. So why is it so persistent?
Boston University think they have the answer. It’s developed in “Pre-life”, not just before birth, but before conception.
A study published a couple of weeks ago in the online edition of “Child Development”by a team led by postdoctoral fellow Natalie Emmons (pictured above) illuminates this area following interviews with 283 children from two distinct cultures in Ecuador. The research suggests that the human bias toward thinking we are immortal is a part of human intuition that emerges, naturally, in our early in life- before we are conceived. And that’s not all, the theory goes on to suggest that the part of us that is eternal, we believe, is not our skills or ability to reason, but instead our hopes, desires and emotions. In a nutshell we are what we feel. And we feel immortal.
The co-author of the paper, Deborah Keleman, pictured above, an Associate Professor of Psychology at Boston University, said:
“This work shows that it’s possible for science to study religious belief. At the same time, it helps us understand some universal aspects of human cognition and the structure of the mind. By focusing on prelife, we could see if culture causes these beliefs to appear, or if they appear spontaneously”.
It may come as no surprise to learn that most studies on immortality have focused on people’s views of the afterlife, often coloured by religious indoctrination. Both children and adults seem to agree that physical bodily needs, such as hunger and thirst, end when people die, but our mental capacities, such as thinking or feeling emotion, continue in some form or another. But all previous studies have not tried to address the question where do these beliefs come from? Emmons suggests that they are not developed through exposure to religious teaching, reading, learning or even the television, but from our intuition. Just as children learn to talk without formal instruction, the research suggests that intuitively they develop the belief that part of their mind could exist apart from their body.
Emmons interviewed children from an indigenous Shuar village in the Amazon Basin of Ecuador. She chose this group because they have no cultural pre-life beliefs, and she suspected that indigenous children, who have regular exposure to birth and death through simple hunting and farming, would have a more rational, biologically-based view of the time before they were conceived. Another “control” group was needed for comparison, so she also interviewed children from an urban area near Quito, where the children were Roman Catholics. That religion teaches that life begins only at conception. Emmons was looking to see if cultural influences ruled all, so that both urban and indigenous children should reject the idea of life before birth.
Emmons showed the children drawings of a baby, a young woman, and the same woman while pregnant, then asked a series of questions about the child’s abilities, thoughts and emotions during each period: as babies, in the womb, and then, before conception.
The results were not those expected. Both groups gave very similar answers, despite their very different cultures. The children in both groups reasoned that their bodies didn’t exist before birth. However, both groups also said that their emotions and desires existed before they were born. For example, while children generally told researchers that they didn’t have eyes and couldn’t see things before birth, they often reported being happy that they would soon meet their mother, or sad that they were apart from their family.
So why would humans have evolved this universal belief ?
The answer Emmons suggests is not science-based, it’s due to the by-product of our highly developed social reasoning. She said:
“We’re really good at figuring out what people are thinking, what their emotions are, what their desires are. We tend to see people as the sum of their mental states, and desires and emotions may be particularly helpful when predicting their behaviour. Because this ability is so useful and so powerful, it flows over into other parts of our thinking. We sometimes see connections where potentially none exist, we hope there’s a master plan for the universe, we see purpose when there is none, and we imagine that a soul survives without a body.”
So standing back from all this, it does not seem to me to take us any closer to attaining or confirming our immortality. The study merely confirms, in my view, the ability to convince ourselves that we shall live forever in one form or another. Personally, I’m still looking for the elixir of life, the tome of immortality, or the DNA equivalent of the God-particle that will stop our bodies from ageing.
Bama Yao is an autonomous County in the Guangxi Provinced in Southeastern China. You may have heard of it. It’s often featured on programmes about longevity and prolonging life. That’s because a very high proportion of the people who live there, are over 100 years old. The number of centenarians (those who are 100 or over) is almost double the United States average.
This is despite the fact that many cancer patients declared as incurable and near life’s end have made a pilgrimage to Bama. In fact the county has the highest density of incurable cancer patients outside of hospitals anywhere in China.
While there’s no scientific proof that the waters there have life-increasing properties, people there drink the spring water and breathe in the morning and evening mists. This has happened since the Qing Dynasty. It’s not just drinking in the mists and water; various other methods for prolonging life have been tried there. Some people wear gloves and crawl barefooted on the surrounding hills like a dog, believing their organs will massage each other and draw energy from Bamo’s earth. Others believe that drinking the urine of the native people in Bama has therapeutic effects. Nice. There are also “magnetic therapy” sessions within a cave in the County where the spring is located.
Some rich people have Bamo water shipped to their home towns or cities, but some say that the water loses its elixir of life quality once taken outside the County’s boundaries. That has led to many people travelling to Bamo to take in the waters of life. Locally they are known as “migratory birds” and resented by the locals. Richer people from the Yangtze River Delta are buying or building properties there. This has led to accusations, with some foundation, that the influx is killing the goose that laid the Golden Egg. Tourism development and the immigrant population have overwhelmed the area, causing the mother river to become polluted. Will this lead to people leaving and the area becoming once again a haven of longevity for the exclusive few?
Who knows, but the fact is that current 39 centenarians living there are lamenting the publicity their County has attracted, and wondering if their days are becoming (more) numbered than hitherto. Trouble in paradise indeed.
While we wait for a miracle drug or DNA implant to give us immortality or at least exceptional longevity, there are other practical steps you can take to prolong and enjoy your life well into your 9o’s and 100’s. Ask Kushwant Singh
Kushwant Singh (born 2 February 1915) is a well-known Indian novelist and journalist. He is 98. He intends to live a lot longer. He is a witty secularist. He is a recipient of the second-highest civilian award in India, the coveted Padma Vibhushan.
He first thought that he owed his longevity and good health (both physical and mental) to his parents’ genes, as they lived well into their nineties. However his brothers and sisters have not fared so well in the longevity stakes and are no longer alive, so he has modified and redefined his views and advice to those who wish to emulate him.
Much of what he preaches is simple stuff, but he makes a lot of sense. His first “mantra” is to prepare for old age. Don’t ignore it. Be ready to embrace it. He says that you need to exercise your limbs and lungs regularly to avoid them seizing up. He was still playing tennis when he was 85. Swimming and long walks are also recommended by him.
He also recommends a regular and vigorous massage routine- both giving (it makes your hands and arms work hard) and receiving. A daily one hour massage is the way to go to keep your body tones in your older years.
On food and drink, he recommends cutting down drastically on all forms of food and drink. This is not just to prevent obesity (or to reduce weight if you are overweight) but to make your body work most effectively in turning meagre rations into energy. For example he starts each morning with a fruit juice, then has scrambled egg on slice of toast. Lunch is a light vegetable South Indian curry. Come evening he has a shot of whiskey before a light tea. The food should be carefully and fully masticated (chewed) in silence to allow better digestion. The amounts on a spoon or fork should be small and not heaped. He says that should never allow yourself to be constipated saying that the stomach is a storehouse of all kinds of ailments. He is quite vociferous on this, and says that he would rather take enemas and laxatives than become constipated and have food non-moving and blocked in your lower intestines. The timing of food and drink intake should be regular. Such as breakfast each and every day at 6.30am, lunch at midday, tea/supper at 7pm.
Smoking is, of course, out, as is anything that has been proved to raise your risk of illness/ill-health.
Turning to mental health he believes that the national Indian motto is one to rule you: Satyamev Jayate- only truth triumphs. He advocates never telling lies, trying to achieve peace of mind- never losing your temper or arguing. He argues that there is joy in giving things away- not necessarily money, but gifts you have made (toys or food for example).
He says that unlike many old people (especially in India) he does not spend long periods immobile in prayer. You can find your god in gardening, helping children with their homework, playing, walking, swimming and other forms of activity be it social or solitary. A sort of “meditation on the move”!
As I turn 60 next year, I shall certainly be trying some of these techniques!
What’s the oldest living animal on the planet? A human? No, the oldest one died recently at 118. An elephant? No 89 years. What about a giant tortoise from the Galapagos Islands? 255 years old (although there are disputes on this down to some calendar jiggling). How about.. wait for it 405 years old???
Yep. An animal was brought ashore from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean a few weeks ago that was born when Elizabeth the First was our Queen, and Shakespeare was penning the Merrie Wives of Windsor! Sadly, by the time the scientists undertook experiments and carbon dating to establish its age, the Methuselah Clam had shrugged off its mortal coil. But Help the Aged, the well-known UK charity donated a cool £40k for tests and research to try to find out why a denizen of the seabed south of Iceland managed to exist for more than four centuries. In fact more recent tests at Bangor University in Wales have revised its age and has shown that the Clam was more like 507 years old, putting it back to the times of Henry VII!
It’s a type of Icelandic clam known as Quahog (Ring a bell Family Guy fans?) and even has been given a name, Ming: It was named after the Chinese Ming dynasty, which was in power when it was alive. Sadly Ming was killed by the Bangor researchers when opening the mollusc’s shell to see how old it was. A sad end for a venerable seabed denizen of the deep.
Paul Butler, an Ocean Scientist as Bangor talking to Science Nordic magazine said:
“We got it wrong the first time and maybe we were a bit hasty publishing our findings back then. But we are absolutely certain that we’ve got the right age now.”
Much as a tree’s age can be found by cutting it down and counting its rings, a bivalve mollusc’s age is calculated by totting up growth rings – the lines left annually on the shell by seasonal variations affecting how quickly they grow.
Ming’s original age had been calculated, wrongly, by counting the growth rings on the hinge of the clam, but as the creature was so old the rings had crowded together making them difficult to distinguish, even with a microscope, with more than 500 packed into a space just a few millimetres across.
The new age of 507 years was calculated by instead counting the rings on the shell’s exterior, where they were more evenly spaced. But in so doing this, one of the world’s oldest animals went up to the Clam Bed in the sky.
Butler told Science Nordic:
“It’s worth keeping in mind that we caught a total of 200 ocean quahogs on our Iceland expedition. Thousands of ocean quahogs are caught commercially every year, so it is entirely likely that some fishermen may have caught quahogs that are as old as or even older than the one we caught.”
Ming’s long life was due to the clam’s incredibly slow metabolism. It’s unlikely that the secret of Ming’s longevity can be usefully transferred to humans. Its DNA is likely to be and good for us, and unless we want to stick around on the seabed doing, well, not very much at all, our metabolism can’t be changed to that of the clam.
Well, from all the scientific research that seems to be going on across the globe, it seems the answer to that is… most of us! From naked mole rats to skin stem cell stimulation it seems like longevity, perhaps even immortality is the next barrier for mankind to burst through.
But the quote in the title, wasn’t the full quote. For military historians they may well recognise the full quote, as uttered by Marine Sergeant-Major Daniel Joseph Daly. Highly decorated throughout his fighting career, he is famous, more probably infamous, for having said to have yelled, “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” to the men in his company prior to charging the Germans during the Battle of Belleau Wood in WW1. So he was encouraging his men to grip their courage and charge an enemy position without regard to the fact that they may lose their lives.
So why do we want to live forever? The scientific and biological research seems to be far ahead of those contemplating the social, economic and environmental consequences of mankind living for far longer, perhaps even for ever. It always makes me laugh when I see in an obituary that someone’s death has been described as “untimely”. There are very few people who would describe a death as “timely”. Even at the end of a long debilitating illness, most people and families would try to cling on to life, for those few extra seconds before departing into the great unknown.
The average life of man has increased over tens of thousands of years. The average life-span now of man in a developed country in around 80 years old (more in Asia- discuss…). But it has taken an awful long time in evolution to get there, from the dawn of the first homo erectus. But is it evolution? And has it really increased by that much?
Using measurements from teeth, skulls and bones that have been found, it seems that many early cavemen actually lived to a ripe old age of 30 or beyond. And the main reason that they failed to live longer than that was not some biological evolutionary stuntedness, but simply their susceptibility to disease, lack of food, heat, and of course predators. Remove those obstacles to longevity and it is likely that early man, on average, could have lived to the age we live to now. So perhaps we have not evolved to live longer, it is just that our circumstances and environment now permit this? No doubt advances in medicine have ensured people don’t die prematurely from accident or disease, but are we actually prolonging man’s innate longevity or merely preventing premature death?
While advances in medicines (a cure for cancer anyone?) are likely to further prevent unnecessary death, it is the actual quest to unlock some secret to longevity and perhaps immortality that intrigues me. Other animals that have been on the planet as long, if not longer, than man, live to approximately the same age as they did tens of thousand of years ago. They have not evolved to live longer, just as I argue that neither has man. So if the biological and scientific tampering with the very heart of man does produce and elixir of longevity, or perhaps even immortality, would the basic DNA of the human not be affected in some way? Is there not some body-clock trigger that would kick in to prevent us living forever? We don’t know, but some commentators argue that just as it is not possible to travel faster than the speed of light, physics and biology will not permit man to cheat death. Is there a “death gene” that simply cannot be by-passed?
Moving on, if we are able to overcome a potential in-built preventative fail-safe mechanism, and live for 200, 300, 400 years or more… How much research has been undertaken and published on the consequences for mankind, and the planet? Back to the quote: Who would want “..to live forever?” on a planet crowded with more and more people who just won’t move on and die and make room for new people. Imagine the conservatism of politics for those who have seen it all before in the hundreds of years they have already lived here? What about food? air? pollution? And what about those of a religious persuasion who consider that man is cheating their God’s will by artificially extending their life beyond three score years and ten? Will they stand idly by as non-believers swell in number?
Then on a personal level, what happens to our brains, our humanity, when we are faced with the prospect of being around the same people, the same friends and family.. forever? How to spring from bed each morning to embrace a new day that you know will never be your last, or anyone else’s? How to motivate oneself to enjoyment, work, study, development and making new relationships… knowing that they stretch away into infinity? My guess is that self-termination; suicides, would become the solution for those unable to appreciate the wonder of living forever.
All food for thought, and probably the kind of thoughts that don’t enter into the minds of scientists hell-bent on “curing” death. Which may not be an illness at all, but the key to man’s continued existence on the planet.
A journey-all journeys- have to have a beginning a middle and an end. Without an end it is not a journey, and there is no purpose in travel. We would become as a painting of soft fruit in a bowl- rotted- still life. And gain a living death by cheating it.
You know the old saying; you wait ages for a bus and then three come along together? It seems we wait ages for scientific advances in one field or another and suddenly there are a plethora of papers, breakthroughs, new ideas and innovations. In the field of longevity, anti-ageing and even immortality the last year has been a bumper one- and it looks like it’s going to continue into 2014. Perhaps we are about to see some real advances in the next five years? We’ve seen naked mole rat DNA, stem cell stimulation to prevent ageing, and now there’s another declaration: Don’t purchase that life assurance plan just yet!
The spotlight shifts to Israel’s Tel Aviv University where researchers have developed a computer algorithm that predicts which genes can be switched off to create the same anti-ageing effect as calorie restriction. The findings of the research were reported recently in the leading journal on biology and associated fields; “Nature Communications.“ . The findings and research, if built upon, could lead to the development of new drugs to treat ageing.
Traditional research in this field has looked for ways to kill off bad cells, such as cancer cells. Chemotherapy and radiation are ways to treat cancerous cells and stop them multiplying. But they involve the destruction of the cells, which can leave a patient invalided or unable to perform certain functions that they could before the cancer took hold. The new research looks at ways of transforming a diseased cell into a healthy one. No steamhammer to crack a walnut, but a subtle terraforming of a cell from being a bad’ un to being a good ‘un.
This may seem similar to other recent discoveries, but the Tel Aviv laboratory of Professor Eytan Ruppin (pictured above) is a leader in this growing field of something called “genome-scale metabolic modeling” or GSMMs. Ruppin and his researchers use mathematical equations and computers, to understand how GSMMs describe the metabolism, or life-sustaining, processes of living cells. Without getting too technical the algorithm MTA can take information about any two metabolic states and predict the environmental or genetic changes required to go from one state to the other. Such as diseased or non-functioning, to restored and active. “Gene expression” is the measurement of the expression level of individual genes in a cell, and genes can be “turned off” in various ways to prevent them from being expressed in the cell.
The study used yeast. And the algorithm predicted how old yeast could be made to look like new yeast. Why yeast? Because it is the most widely used genetic model as so much of its DNA is preserved in humans. Now you know!
By turning off two genes in real yeast, the researchers found that the yeast’s lifespan could be extended, significantly. By up to nearly a third. While currently there is no way to verify the results in humans, many of these crucial genes are known to extend lifespan in not only yeast, but worms, and mice. That’s where the research will go next- tests on mice.
The glittering prize at the end of this road would be an extended lifespan for we humans, and for finding cures for metabolic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, neurodegenerative disorders and of course, the big one, cancer. And maybe extending skin life so that you need never worry about wrinkles, crow’s feet and a saggy neck!
The secret to the fountain of youth lies in awakening ‘sleeping’ stem cells in the skin, according to new research. We know that stem cells are supercells that can control the creation of other cells. They are crucial to repairing damaged skin, but as we get older these stem cells seems to suffer a regeneration forgetfulness and allow the skin to become wrinkled and lose its elasticity. British and U.S. scientists say the breakthrough may open the door to the development of better beauty treatments to zap wrinkles and saggy skin for good.
Co author of the report Dr Arun Upadhyay, a computational biologist at Procter & Gamble, said: ‘
“These models permit exploration of hypotheses in very short periods of time, relative to the lab based bench work. The ability to follow virtual skin models over decades may be especially important to skin cancer research. Environmental damage caused by ultraviolet radiation or chronic wounding can cause sleeping cells to harbour the mutations which cause skin cancers such as basal cell carcinoma, a very aggressive type of skin cancer.”
Simply put the trick then is to stimulate “good” stem cells whilst keeping mutant stem cells latent (lest they cause cancers). While the research has a long way to go to fruition to create a pill or cream that can activate the best stem cells and cause them to regenerate “old” skin for many many years, while leaving the bad stem cells dormant, this is an important first step. A road map has been created and all that’s required is time, energy, money and innovation to travel that road to a successful conclusion. And to skin that regenerates on demand; surely an elixir of eternal youthfulness and longevity as was found in Sir Rider-Haggard’s character in his book “She” in Shangri La?
While one may want to argue the merits of living forever, or the burden that will fall on the young as the old get older and live longer, but who would not jump at the chance for a magic pill to stop or even reverse the ageing process? Oh to regain that lost youth (and retain our experience) that, as Oscar Wilde said was “wasted on the young”.
Researchers in the US (Harvard University) and Australia (University of New South Wales) anticipate that an anti-ageing product can be trialled on humans in 2014, following success in reversing the ageing process in muscles in laboratory mice.
It involves a process of restoring the efficiency of cells: Two-year-old mice were given a compound over a week, moving back the key indicators of ageing to that of a six-month-old mouse. Researchers said this was the equivalent of making a 60-year-old person feel like a 20-year-old: As a man nearly at his sixtieth the birthday, the idea of springing out of bed one morning, cycling to the bowling alley and clocking up strikes and spares galore like I did 40 years ago is somewhat appealing!
But if successful, the compound may not just reverse ageing, but also reverse and roll-back (and therefore treat) diseases such as cancer, diabetes and dementia.
Without getting too technical, the research concentrated on an area of cells, called mitochondria, which produce energy. Over time, the vital communication between this area and the cell nucleus degrades, leading to the ageing process. Researchers injected a chemical called nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide, or NAD, which reduces in the body as we age. The addition of this compound led to the breakthrough reversal in the ageing of the mice. The process was also rapid- almost overnight the reversal of ageing began. The compound is also based on something that naturally occurs in the body and so no or few side effects are expected. It may not allow us all to live till we’re 200, but will mean we will be healthier in our later life.
As always there’s a cloud to ruin an otherwise azure summer sky. This one is cost. The one-a-day magic pill made from the compound for a human would cost about $50,000. Imagine then a world where rich people live longer, healthier and presumably happier than the rest of us. Wait a minute doesn’t that occur already?!!
“Of mice and men” is of course from the John Steinbeck novel, which in turn took the line from the penultimate stanza of Scot’s poet Robbie Burns’ “Ode to a Mouse”:
But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!