Driven by the quest for eternal youth, humankind has spent centuries obsessed with the question of how it is exactly that we age. With advancements in molecular genetic methods in recent decades, the search for the genes involved in the aging process has greatly accelerated.
Until now, this was mostly limited to genes of individual model organisms such as the C. elegans nematode, which revealed that around one percent of its genes could influence life expectancy. However, researchers have long assumed that such genes arose in the course of evolution and in all living beings whose cells have a preserved a nucleus — from yeast to humans.
Combing through 40,000 genes
Researchers at ETH Zurich and the JenAge consortium from Jena have now systematically gone through the genomes of three different organisms in search of the genes associated with the aging process that are present in all three species — and thus derived from the genes of a common ancestor. Although they are found in different organisms, these so-called orthologous genes are closely related to each other, and they are all found in humans, too.
In order to detect these genes, the researchers examined around 40,000 genes in the nematode C. elegans, zebra fish and mice. By screening them, the scientists wanted to determine which genes are regulated in an identical manner in all three organisms in each comparable aging stage — young, mature and old; i.e. either are they upregulated or downregulated during aging.
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