A longer lifespan could one day be hardwired into our DNA.
In a groundbreaking study, researchers from the University of Rochester, New York, demonstrated how longevity genes from the longest-living rodent species could be transferred into mice to extend their lifespan and improve their overall health. The results were published in the journal Nature on August 23.
“Our study provides a proof of principle that unique longevity mechanisms that evolved in long-lived mammalian species can be exported to improve the lifespans of other mammals,” Vera Gorbunova, the Doris Johns Cherry Professor of biology and medicine at Rochester and co-author on the study, said in a statement.
Naked mole rats are known for their resistance to age-related diseases and unusually long lifespans, nearly 10 times longer than other similar-sized rodents.
Scientists have been drawn to their unusual abilities and, in 2020, the same team discovered a gene that is involved in at least one of the mechanisms behind this animal’s peculiar longevity. This gene is responsible for the production of high molecular weight hyaluronic acid (HMW-HA), a molecule that has been shown to enhance cellular resistance to stress and inflammation.
Naked mole rats have about 10 times more of these stress-resisting molecules in their bodies than humans or mice. This is because the gene that produces this molecule, the hyaluronan synthase 2 gene, is more strongly expressed (or “switched on”) in the naked mole rat than in other animals.
Now, researchers have found that this super-switched-on version of the hyaluronan synthase 2 gene can be transferred from the naked mole rat into mice, transferring its longevity-boosting properties. In the recent study, mice that had the naked mole rat version of this gene were better protected against skin cancer, showed overall improved health, and lived 4.4 percent longer than their peers.
It is not yet clear why HMW-HA has such a beneficial effect on health and lifespan, but the researchers believe it has something to do with the molecule’s ability to regulate the immune system directly.
So far, we have only seen the effects of this gene in mice. But these findings still open up exciting possibilities in anti-aging research and the quest to extend human lifespans.
“We hope that our findings will provide the first, but not the last, example of how longevity adaptations from a long-lived species can be adapted to benefit human longevity and health,” co-author Andrei Seluanov said in a statement.