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Gene Mutations Can Mean Longer Life March 4, 2008

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Genetics, Human Body, Tough Stuff.
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While they won’t make someone live forever, researchers recently identified some variations in genes that can allow people to live longer. Your genes are your special and unique instructions that determine things like your hair and eye color.

Say Hello To Centenarians

Elderly Nir Barzilai and his team are from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, which is part of Yeshiva University in New York. Their work involved research subjects of Ashkenazi Jewish descent who were all 100 years of age or older. The fancy term we like to use for people in this age bracket is centenarian. Barzilai and his colleagues identified two gene mutations in the centenarians. If you’re a keen bean, you can read the full, more technical version in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Mutations Can Be Good

You might be wondering to yourself that it seems odd for a mutation to result in greater longevity – something we consider beneficial! The word mutation can leave us thinking of disease, death and just generally bad stuff. While this is often the case, genetic mutations can also lead to positive changes. It’s thought that these changes occur to help humans or other organisms evolve and better adapt to their environment.

Looking Inside The Body

DNA In this study, researchers found that the two mutations affect a receptor for insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). What does IGF-1 do? If you’re thinking it might influence growth, you’re definitely on the right track. IGF-1 is a guiding force in your body’s growth and maturity. It’s especially dominant during puberty and directs the intense growth and development that occurs during the adolescent years. So, what if the receptor stops working properly, as in the case of the centenarians? If the receptor is just a wee bit faulty, the result is that IGF-1 doesn’t effectively bind to the receptor. Low and behold, the pathway to aging and maturation doesn’t proceed at the same pace and ultimately, it is slowed.

For my male readers, don’t get too hopeful you’ve got the gene mutations. Thus far, the carriers identified are all women. Even more interesting is that the centenarians were shorter than an average woman. These women were approximately 2.5 centimeters shorter than the rest of the population. It makes sense, however, given the role of IGF-1 during the huge pubertal growth spurt.

Our Obsession

Injection In westernized societies, we’re absolutely obsessed with anti-aging and finding the next product to decrease aging – whether it’s the visible, aesthetic signs of aging or the internal, physiological ones. Ironically, people have been getting injections of growth hormone for many years now, with the belief that it slows down the aging process. Given that Barzilai’s study showed it was the people with lower levels of growth hormone who are living longer, these injections could potentially be quite dangerous.

We’re Not Alone

Another thing to keep in mind is that humans are not the only ones with these types of mutations. Worms, flies and mice have similar faulty genes that increase longevity. In the coming years, researchers will probably be in a mad flurry to investigate the genes in other centenarian populations around the world. One of the hopes is to discover strategies to reduce aging in the general population. I guess for now though, I’ll just have to fake it by sticking with my anti-aging face cream!

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