Live Forever: The Science of Superlongevity

Since the dawn of humanity, people have been on a quest for the secret of immortality, or at least the extension of life, but the magic fountain of youth was nowhere to be found. The belief that something like superlongevity is possible was additionally flamed by stories such as the Biblical narrative about Methuselah, who apparently lived a staggering 969 years. Archeologists who investigated the ruins of Mesopotamian cities Nineveh and Nippur found royal lists which state that their kings, like Emenluana from Badtibir and Enspaziana from Larak, reigned for thousands of years.

People have always been drawn to the idea that some magical potion administered to us could turn back the clock. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance alchemists sought to find the so-called elixir of life, a mythical substance associated with the philosopher’s stone, which can provide an incredibly long life, even immortality. Many have ruined their health and died even before their time as a result of experimenting on themselves. But, perhaps that entire effort was not in vain. Modern successors of these early researchers are making huge strides on the path towards finding solutions for expending human life which are potentially METHUSELAHpromising.

Although we still don’t have a definite answer to the question, why do we age, some explanations may be contained in the process of shortening of telomeres (stretches of DNA at the end of chromosomes; Greek τέλος meaning “end”). As humans grow older, reproduction of cells in their bodies is reduced. Normally, dying cells in our organism are being replaced with new cells by cell division. Unfortunately, this process has some side effects. With each cell division telomeres shorten. At one point, when they are shortened to a certain extent, this particle of DNA signals to the cells that it is time to stop further dividing. Interruption of the process of cell proliferation is known as senescence, a state of certain weariness of cells, where they are unable to divide any further, thus preventing the formation of a new tissue. This is believed to be the major cause of aging.

Scientists claim to have found a molecular cocktail that acts as a kind of elixir of youth. The researchers injected mice with the telomerase gene (telomerase is an enzyme capable of rejuvenating telomeres), which has slowed down the process of senescence by protecting, reactivating, and even lengthening the telomeres , therefore allowing cells to divide much longer than they would have in the normal state.

Aging is a very complicated process that people have yet to fully understand. But if the key to our aging is foremost the shortening of telomeres, then finding ways to stop or reverse this process, along with other treatments, will probably be the closest thing to the elixir of youth as we will ever be.

Those other treatments scientist consider in their pursuit to extend human life involve, inter alia, low-calorie diets or medications, such as Resveratrol or Rapamycin, which can trick our bodies into ‘thinking’ as functioning on fewer calories; turning off or mutating some gens suspected of triggering the aging processes; or suppressing the release of certain chemicals our bodies produce in advanced years of our lives, which are contributing factors to aging. Solving the mystery of aging will take an interdisciplinary approach, something like Calico, Google’s biotech company, tries to establish.

Whichever might be the answer to human quest for superlongevity it will most certainly instigate many changes in our perception of humanity and the life itself.