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]
There’s your chronological age, the number that creeps depressingly upward with each passing birthday, and then there’s your biological age, associated with the condition of your body. In a study this week in Nature Genetics, a British team discovered a link between a particular genetic variation and people being several years older in their biological age.
Says study leader Nilesh Samani: “What we studied are structures called telomeres which are parts of one’s chromosomes. Individuals are born with telomeres of certain length and in many cells telomeres shorten as the cells divide and age” [Press Association]. Some people, however, are born with shorter telomeres to begin with, which sets them up to age faster, biologically speaking, and could put them at greater risk for age-related diseases.