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The Fountain of Youth May Be Filled With Worms

Unlike Ponce de León who thought that the elusive fountain of youth could be found by drinking or bathing in its magical waters, the secret to longetivity may be discovered in the study of worms.

Recent studies show that worms may hold the key to the fountain of youth and longetivity. Assistant professor Javier Apfeld at the College of Applied Science at Northwestern University has been manipulating the genes of worms and their environment in an attempt to lengthen their lives and whether there is a limit to how long they can live. The answers could provide clues to increasing our own lifespan.

He says,

What controls how long an organism lives? I study that question in worms, which are a great model because they live only about two weeks, so I can do experiments quickly, and relatively inexpensively. Of course, worms are worms — they’re not mice, they’re not humans. But many of the genes that affect lifespan in worms affect lifespan in other organisms. Worms are, in many ways, leading the way to understanding aging.

Apfeld has had a fascination with worms and has spent a career researching stopping the aging process. While a graduate student at the University of Southern California in San Francisco, he heard molecular biologist Cynthia Kenyon describe how worms with a particular gene had double the lifespan of those without the gene and he found his calling.

Javier Apfeld

Javier Apfeld

Currently, Apfeld’s research is on how oxidation and reduction, the trading of electrons between protein molecules, relates to aging. Research has linked increased protein oxidation to age-related diseases like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimers’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

He says,

Oxidation is the process of a molecule selling an electron, and reduction is the process of a molecule buying an electron.

Factors like a change in an organism’s environment (toxin or diet) can kick off the transaction.

Worms and Lifespan

Worms and Lifespan

While an instructor at Harvard Medical School, Apfeld co-authored a study using fluorescent technology to measure oxidation reactions in the cells of organisms. They discovered a compound, glutathione, found in animal and plant tissues, including worms and humans. Rather than acting as a buffer against oxidation, it may amplify messages, controlling the process. The findings could alter future research into the role of oxidation in age-related diseases and have implications for treatment, such as the use of antioxident supplements.

Apfeld adds,

We are trying to understand the causes of aging by linking the mechanisms that control the oxidation of proteins at the cellular level with the mechanisms that determine the lifespan of the whole organism.

He is investigating what propels the glutathione communication system and how oxidation changes the function of the affected proteins.

Good news for humans … bad news for fish and robins.