Doubling life near death

Removing a key protein from the worm Caenorhabditis elegans near the end of its live can double the worm’s lifespan, demonstrating that life-extending interventions can be made at any age.
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15-day-old C. elegans, displaying signs of old age such as cell detachments, intestinal atrophy, germ-line tumours, and organ distortion. Image credit: Max Hess (CC BY 4.0)

The goal of geroscience, or research into old age, is to promote health during old age, and thus, to increase lifespan. In the body, the groups of biochemical reactions, or ‘pathways’, that allow an organism to sense nutrients, and regulate growth and stress, play major roles in ensuring healthy aging. Indeed, organisms that do not produce a working version of the insulin/IGF-1 receptor, a protein involved in one such pathway, show increased lifespan. In the worm Caenorhabditis elegans, mutations in the insulin/IGF-1 receptor can even double their lifespan. However, it is unclear whether this increase can be achieved once the organism has reached old age.

To answer this question, Venz et al. genetically engineered the nematode worm C. elegans so that they could trigger the rapid degradation of the insulin/IGF-1 receptor either in the entire organism or in a specific tissue. Venz et al. started by aging several C. elegans worms for three weeks, until about 75% had died. At this point, they triggered the degradation of the insulin/IGF-1 receptor in some of the remaining worms, keeping the rest untreated as a control for the experiment.

The results showed that the untreated worms died within a few days, while worms in which the insulin/IGF-1 receptor had been degraded lived for almost one more month. This demonstrates that it is possible to double the lifespan of an organism at the very end of life.

Venz et al.’s findings suggest that it is possible to make interventions to extend an organism’s lifespan near the end of life that are as effective as if they were performed when the organism was younger. This sparks new questions regarding the quality of this lifespan extension: do the worms become younger with the intervention, or is aging simply slowed down?