The study, published in Nature this week, used the enzyme telomerase to stop and actually reverse the aging process in prematurely-aged mice.
Telomerase keeps chromosomes structurally sound by beefing up telomeres, the repetitive segments of junk DNA at the ends of chromosomes. Telomeres act as protective buffers for the chromosome’s working genes during cell division, when the chromosome is shortened and genetic material at the tips is lost.
For the new study, researchers created special mice whose telomerase activity could be switched on and off. When telomerase was turned off, the mice aged prematurely.
These animals age much faster than normal mice–they are barely fertile and suffer from age-related conditions such as osteoporosis, diabetes and neurodegeneration. They also die young. “If you look at all those data together, you walk away with the idea that the loss of telomerase could be a very important instigator of the ageing process,” says [lead author Ronald] DePinho. [Nature News]