Did you know that the Aztecs believed in a doglike monster that lived in lakes and rivers and liked to feast on fishermen? Neither did I and I wouldn’t have had I not been investigating a story about a gene of the same name that allows fruit flies to live 60% longer by killing bad cells. A gene that is also carried by humans. Sounds like a two-fer tale!
The ahuizotl or azot gene is known to protect internal organs and the brain by isolating and destroying malfunctioning or sick genes. When researchers at the University of Bern, led by Eduardo Moreno, genetically engineered fruit flies to give them a third copy of the gene, the flies lived 60% longer because the gene protected their bodies from the degeneration of cells that cause aging. Yes, humans have the ahuizotl gene but the researchers caution they’re a long way from creating Methuselahs. Still, the research is promising.
So, what’s the gene's connection to the Aztec monster? Stories of the Ahuizotl began appearing in the late 13th century. The name is Nahuatl for “Thorny One of the Water” and the aquatic creature was described as being canine in body shape (the spikes referred to how its wet hair clumped together) but with apelike hands, including one at the end of its tail.
Like its namesake gene, the Ahuizotl was a protector – in this case, it protected fish in lakes and rivers by killing off fishermen. The Ahuizotl was said to especially enjoy fingernails, teeth and eyeballs … bodies of missing fishermen washed up without those parts. It was also said to cry like a human baby as a way of luring unsuspecting fishermen with long fingers and big eyes. Later legends had it attacking boats and grabbing anyone standing too close to the water’s edge.
Those are the stories of the Ahuizotl – a legendary man-eating monster and a potential life-extending gene.