What can a simple fruit fly teach us about ageing?

Image licensed under CC0 (courtesy of Pixabay)

The humble fruit fly. Image licensed under CC0 (courtesy of Pixabay)

A recent study could lead to interventions that extend human lifespan and improve health in our later years. Based on new evidence regarding a DNA-based theory of ageing, this field aims to attenuate diseases of ageing such as cancer, hypertension and Alzheimer’s disease.

Ageing research dates back many years, but thanks to scientists at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging the field has become more widely recognised. Researchers at Buck coined the term ‘geroscience’ to explain the relationship between ageing and age-related diseases. The notion that people are more susceptible to diseases as they grow older rings true to most of us, although some older adults lead healthy and active lives without medical intervention.

“Every day, 10,000 Americans turn 65, and every day, more and more of them are just as fit as me” – so says Linda Marsa, contributing editor at Discover magazine. Richard Johnson, an economist, says “Today’s seniors are healthier, better educated, and more productive than ever.” Despite these positive trends, many would argue that the goal of geroscience – to explain and intervene in age-related diseases including arthritis – remains highly relevant to today’s societies.

Since life extension studies remain inconclusive, scientists are working to improve ‘healthspan’ – the length of time a person is healthy, especially in the later years. Brown University Professor Dr. Stephen L. Helfand is one of several researchers whose work is advancing the rapidly maturing field of ageing science. He is also senior author of the study mentioned above.

This study showed that many transposable elements (TEs) become activated with age in the fruit fly Drosophila*, and that this activation is prevented by dietary restriction – an intervention known to extend life span. TEs are sequences of DNA (our genetic material) that move (or jump) from one location in the genome to another. Drosophila is a small fruit fly used extensively in genetic research. Why do scientists use fruit flies? Because fruit flies share 75 percent of the genes that cause disease with humans including having a smaller, fully-sequenced genome for easier genetic manipulations. Ultimately, the study provides evidence that preventing TE activation by dietary restriction may be a useful tool in ameliorating aging-associated diseases. The hope is that such results could be applied to humans as research progresses.  

“Our demonstration that dietary [restriction], genetic and pharmacological interventions that reduce the age-related increases in [transposon] activity can also extend lifespan suggests new and novel pathways for the development of interventions designed to extend healthy lifespan.” according to this study. Despite the possibility of a true causal relationship, scientists can (happily!) avoid misleading phrases such as the Fountain of Youth, since geroscience hopes to improve health and longevity – not provide some mythical youth potion. Older people are a rapidly growing demographic – by 2100, the number of people aged 60 and over will reach 3.2 billion. It is, therefore, vital that researchers use terms that do not marginalize an increasingly growing demographic –  or maintain the current narrative of our youth-obsessed culture.

We have seen major breakthroughs in public health and medical research, including a generational leap in longevity, the use of antibiotics, the completion of the Human Genome Project, and more. Society has also reaped the benefits of new medical technologies and advances in nutrition such as sustainable diets, virtual reality, and food scanners. As the field of geroscience continues to evolve, both public and private sectors may increase investments for ageing research, especially if it can reveal treatments for conditions that afflict older people. More data is also needed to understand and support research findings including the current study by Dr. Helfand. This paper comes as scientists from three universities including, Brown University, New York University and the University of Rochester forge a new partnership in DNA-related research. The collaboration is supported by a five-year, $9.67-million grant from the National Institutes of Health. Hence, study outcomes could have a lasting effect on health and society. David Sinclair, a researcher of ageing at Harvard Medical School, has put this attitude into words: “The goal of this research is not to keep people in the nursing home for longer. It’s to keep them out of nursing homes for longer.”

– Sophie Okolo

Sophie is a writer on many topics ranging from healthy ageing, longevity and medical research. She got her degrees by studying ageing and bioinformatics – using computers to make tools to analyze large amounts of biological data. Outside the lab, Sophie is a classic bibliophile. She owns a large library of books including The Lord of the Rings which also happens to be her favourite movie. Connect with Sophie on Twitter! @sophieokolo

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