Yep, you read that right. Worms… yes, worms may hold the key to extending the lifespan of humans! 😎
That’s. So. Crazy. #mindblown
I’m talking about a specific species of worms — the Caenorhabditis elegans a.k.a. C. elegans, our little buddy in the picture a couple of sentences up. ⬆️
Recently, this worm was used in an aging study by researchers at the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory that was able to increase its lifespan by 500%!
Before I dive into this experiment, I’ll give a brief background into a field known as Longevity and why we might want to extend the lifespan of humans.
What if we could live forever? 💭
I think many of us have asked ourselves this question at least once, or something along the lines of what if we could live longer than humans usually do?
Well it turns out a lot of people would love to live longer and with a field called Longevity, this may become a reality in our lifetime.
Longevity is the study of extending one’s life expectancy.
There are lots of different research techniques and technologies being explored from senescent cells to free radicals to genetic engineering, which is the topic we’re going to focus on today.
The book of life a.k.a. the genome. 🔬
Every organism has a genome. It’s stored in their cell’s nucleus and in different organisms a couple of other areas.
The genome is a complete copy of an organism’s Deoxyribonucleic acid a.k.a. DNA. A molecule arranged in two strands that coil together in a ladder-like form known as a double helix. (Check out my article on genomes, to learn more 😉).
This DNA can be thought of as the code of life and it’s made up of four chemical nucleotides/bases which are the language you code it in:
Adenine (A), Cytosine (C), Thymine (T), and Guanine (G).
A’s from one strand are only intended to pair with T’s on the other strand. The same goes for C’s to G’s.
Sometimes the wrong letter will be paired or placed in a genetic sequence and this can cause mutations that may be the root of different diseases or conditions.
Genetic engineering gives us the power to alter life.
Let’s say there was a mutation in a genetic sequence, what can we do about it?
This is where genetic engineering comes in. It gives us the ability to alter genetic code, essentially giving us the power to create + shape life.
It’s literally insane! Genetic engineering super-powers us. ⚡️
There are many different genetic engineering techniques; I’m going to focus on using CRISPR Cas-9, a genetic engineering tool that has the ability to alter the genetic code.
An analogy that makes it easy to understand is thinking of genetic engineering tools like CRISPR Cas-9 as having the same controls as a computer. 💻
It can cut, paste, copy, and even insert new code that wasn’t there before.
This allows us to alter genetic mutations and opens an avenue for exploration of how genetics affects aging.
If you want to learn more about CRISPR, here’s a great start! ⬇️
C. elegans are ideal for scientific research.
Welcome back to our C. elegans experiment. I’m hoping you know a bit more about genetics and engineering it now! So let’s dive back in. 🐬
A common question people have about studies like this one is why C. elegans?
Yes, C. elegans is just a little worm. It’s basically another form of a scientific guinea pig in a wide range of subjects from aging to neurology. C. elegans is a popular candidate for research studies. 🔬
There’s a reason for this. It’s because C. elegans have many similar cellular pathways to humans, so in experimenting on C. elegan's cellular pathways it may produce a similar result to what would happen in a human.
The second reason is that our worm friends don’t have a long life. They live for approximately three to four weeks. ⏰This makes them an ideal test subject because any changes in lifespan or other traits are quickly apparent and easy to measure.
Both these reasons make the C. elegans the perfect scientific research candidate! 🎉
We’ve tried to increase lifespans before.
In the past, researchers have tried to increase lifespans.
In C. elegans, researchers in other aging studies have increased their lifespan by 50–100% with a mixture of drugs and genetic engineering. 💊
At the time, this was really awesome!
In another study with mice at Salk’s Gene Expression Laboratory, they were able to increase the lifespan of mice with a CRISPR Cas-9 gene therapy by 25%. 🐭
Altering the ILS and TOR cellular pathways in C. Elegans.
In this aging study, the researchers took a different approach: altering the genetic code of two cellular pathways. 😎
The first is the Insulin Signaling (IIS) pathway which they expected should increase the lifespan of C. elegans by 100%.
The second is the TOR pathway which they expected would increase the lifespan of C. elegans by an additional 30%.
With some basic math we know 100% + 30% is 130%.
This should mean the lifespan of C. elegans in this study should’ve ⬆️130%.
However, this wasn’t the case.
In the end, as mentioned earlier, the lifespan of the C. elegans with the two altered cellular pathways was increased by an insane 500%!
For a C. elegans living 28 days, this would be extending their lifespan until 140 days.
In humans, this same result would be living 400 days! 🎉
- C. elegans is ideal for scientific research because it has similar cellular pathways to humans and a short lifespan.
- Genetic engineering gives us the ability to alter the code of life.
- One genetic engineering tool is CRISPR Cas-9.
- Altering multiple cellular pathways may be the key to increasing human lifespans.
- In C. elegans, the IIS (Insulin Signalling) and TOR pathways were altered.
Resources for the future longevity researcher:
Back to our question of whether we can live forever, or maybe even just a little bit longer? I don’t know if we can live forever (yet), but I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to increase the lifespans of humans… maybe 400 years. 😉
Advances in genetic engineering and longevity research breakthroughs are creating a new avenue towards extending the lifespans of humans — making living longer a reality!
While there’s still a long way to go, this study helped us realize that the key to extending life may just be in longevity networks.
I think it’s safe to say that worms might be the key to extending human lifespans.
I want to leave you with this quote from the Co-Lead of the study:
“The effect isn’t one plus one equals two, it’s one plus one equals five. Our findings demonstrate that nothing in nature exists in a vacuum, in order to develop the most effective anti-aging treatments we have to look at longevity networks rather than individual pathways.”
- Jarod Rollins
Hey. Thanks for reading this article! I really appreciate it and I hope you learned something about longevity, genetic engineering, and C. elegans.
👋I’m Adara! I’m a sixteen-year-old genetics researcher, activist, writer, and innovator. I have a HUGE passion for the environment and exploration (space, marine, and terrestrial) tech! My mission: combine my passion for technology and social justice to leverage technologies to help address some of the United Nations’ (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 🌍 I’m also an aspiring astronaut, pilot, and marine biologist. 🚀
To follow along on my journey you can connect with me on Twitter and Linkedin. You can also find some of my past work on my portfolio and for more articles like this one, I’d recommend following my Medium blog.
Until the next story,