Biogerontology: How A Compost Heap In Bristol Gave Rise To The Science Of Aging

Changing just one gene increased the longevity of a worm ten-fold. Image credit: Heiti Paves/

The cosmetic and wellness industries are rife with products making bold anti-aging claims, and it can be difficult to navigate which are worth your money and which are just expensive moisturizers. Goop is a brand that often comes under fire for making unscientific claims about the benefits of keeping a crystal egg in places where one should never keep a crystal egg, or steaming your vagina like broccoli.

Aging and its prevention are however backed by some legitimate science – in fact, it even has its own name. “Biogerontology is the biological aspect of the study of ageing, known as gerontology,” said author Andrew Steele who wrote Ageless: The New Science of Getting Older Without Getting Old, in an email to IFLScience. “Gerontology covers all kinds of things, from health to social factors that change as we age, and the biological side is concerned with understanding – and potentially treating – the cellular and molecular underpinnings of ageing process.”

As Steele's book explains, the emergence of this branch of science had an unexpected hero who was extracted from a heap of compost back in 1951. Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner was on the hunt for a model species that might offer up some easily digestible insights into neural development. The answer came in a form of a nematode, a kind of worm. Brenner dug one variety out of the earth in his garden in Cambridge but ran auditions to find the perfect model specimen for his studies. He eventually settled on a Bristol strain, Caenorhabditis elegans, better known (if this scandalous Twitter debate is anything to go by) as C. elegans.

“One reason that C. elegans are such a useful organism for ageing 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 makes doing experiments vastly quicker than it could be in humans – you can get your results in a fortnight, rather than waiting fifty years for your subjects to start dying!” 

Having such a short life cycle to play with, the scientists began firing what Steele calls “a chemical blunderbuss” into the worms’ DNA to see how – or if – it affected longevity, but early investigations were a bit hit and miss. Eventually, these genetic screens uncovered some relevant areas of the genome which altered the worms’ life expectancy.

“The first of these, for obvious reasons, was christened age-1, and the variation that was discovered added about 50% to worm longevity,” said Steele. “After a couple of decades of intervening discoveries, there’s a beautiful symmetry: the current reigning champion for worm lifespan is a different mutation of the same age-1 gene, which makes worms live ten times longer – 1000%! – which is a particularly remarkable increase considering the change responsible for it involves swapping just a single letter in the worms’ genetic code.”

Despite our differences, this "model organism" shares a common ancestor with humans and, as a result, some of the kit found under their genetic hood has been conserved beneath our own. This means that lessons learned from geriatric worms do actually have a significant impact on human biology.

“The age-1 gene is part of the ‘insulin signalling pathway’, the mechanism by which cells detect insulin levels in the body,” continued Steele. “We’ve also found mutations in insulin signalling genes in humans who survive to exceptional ages, often in a gene called FOXO3 which has particular variants commonly observed in people who live to 100 and beyond.

“Sadly, these variants don’t seem to have the same spectacular tenfold lifespan multiplier in people as worms! However, there are some single-gene mutations in people can add years to life – and it’s arguably in decent part thanks to inspiration from C. elegans that we even imagined you could have a ‘longevity gene’ in the first place.”



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