Medicine

Scientists Slowed Aging In Fruit Flies. Are Humans Next?

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Of all the "holy grails" in science research, a way to achieve eternal life has got to be at the top. In 2017, scientists got a step closer to this end goal. By tweaking production of a certain protein, they slowed the aging process in fruit flies and gave them 20 percent more time on this earth. The hope is that this discovery could eventually lead to anti-aging therapies for humans, too.

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Fruit flies’ mitochondria (in green) at 10 days (top left), 28 days (top right) and 37 days old (both bottom images). At bottom right, the mitochondria have returned to a more youthful state after UCLA biologists increased the fly’s level of a protein called Drp1.

The Powerhouse Of The Cell

Fruit flies are often used as model organisms for biology research, since they have many of our same genes but experience a faster life cycle and reproduce like crazy. Just like human cells, fruit fly cells contain mitochondria, which act kind of like digestive organs in that they take in nutrients and convert them to fuel to power the cell. Mitochondria divide, fuse, and change shape over time, and it's the cell's job to eliminate old, damaged mitochondria to make room for new ones. But as the body ages, those damaged mitochondria tend to pile up, turn toxic, and contribute to age-related diseases.

That's what University of California, Los Angeles researchers found happening in fruit flies. As the flies reached the middle of their lives — at the ripe old age of one month — their mitochondria went from small and round to big and long, making it harder for the cell to get rid of them.

To reverse this process, the researchers honed in on a protein called Drp1. In flies and mice, levels of Drp1 have been found to decrease with age. When the team used genetic modification to increase the flies' levels of Drp1, their bodies were able to break apart the large, damaged mitochondria into smaller pieces that the cells successfully discarded.

Forever Young

After just a week of increased Drp1 levels, the middle-aged flies became more energetic and had more endurance. Not only that, but their lives were significantly extended: female flies lived an average of 20 percent longer than what's typical, and male flies lived 12 percent longer. Another part of the experiment achieved the same thing by turning off the protein Mfn, which made the mitochondria get bigger in the first place.

The question is, will this prove useful in humans? The researchers are hopeful. One of their long-term goals is to develop drugs that could mimic the effects of these proteins, thereby adding to the number of healthy years we have in our lives. And that could mean a few extra decades to yell at kids to get off your lawn.

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