Although recent studies have shown that most Americans aren't entirely fond of the idea of immortality, it's probably a good bet that they still wouldn't mind extending their lifespans by 10-15 years. If researchers at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) have their way, that wish could become a reality. These scientists have successfully extended the lives of mice by changing a single gene.
In the study, scientists used gene expression, which is taking information from a gene to synthesize a gene product, typically a protein. The mice involved in the study were engineered to produce only 25% of the normal amount of the protein from the mTOR gene, which scientists believe controls metabolism and energy levels. The engineered mice grew up smaller than their peers, but their lifespans increased by nearly 20 percent, the longest lifespan increase ever seen in mice. In humans, an increased lifespan of 20% would raise the average lifespan by about 15-16 years.
However, scientists also discovered something else: individual organ and body parts reacted differently to the process in the engineered mice, leading them to believe that aging is not a uniform process. For example, although the affected mice gained better memory abilities, their bones deteriorated at a faster rate and their organs and tissues became susceptible to infections. Hmm.
While you probably should not immediately attempt to meddle with your own mTOR gene, these initial results should not be dismissed. The research done with these mice could help with developing better therapies for diseases that are age-related, such as Alzheimer's. Obviously, further study is needed to determine how this gene change would affect human cells, as well as to figure out how aging in different tissues, organs, and body parts happens at the molecular level.
Editor's Note: I think that may actually be a gerbil in the picture, but it's super cute so we're not going to change it.