Science Saturday

We've Discovered the Countdown Timer Inside Every Living Cell

The idea of a clock counting down to your death is the stuff that "Twilight Zone" episodes are made of. And it's not exactly comforting. But when it's your cells that have a built-in countdown timer, it could actually mean better health — and a longer life — for you. Here's how scientists figured out how to read that countdown clock.

A Secret in a Nuclear Envelope

Prior to this discovery, scientists have only been able to accurately gauge a cell's age after the cell has already died. That's useful, as far as it goes — but it doesn't get very far. We already knew that cells transformed as they got older, but because we couldn't watch them age in real time, we couldn't judge how fast those transformations occurred.

But at NYU, researchers using cutting-edge fluorescence microscopes have discovered a previously unknown flicker in the nuclear envelope — the microscopic membrane that contains the nucleus of the cell. As it turns out, this flicker beats at a predictable rate but slows down as the cell gets older until it ultimately stops. In other words, if scientists can time the flicker of the nuclear envelope, they can work out how long until its clock runs out.

Counting Down to Health

But what good does it do us to know when our cells are going to die? Quite a lot, as a matter of fact. Besides telling us about how healthy cells age, it can help us pick out unhealthy cells from the bunch. And since structural and functional misfires of the nuclear envelope can signal or give rise to health problems such as cardiomyopathy, muscular dystrophy, and cancer, a clearer understanding of this phenomenon could help us diagnose a disease and treat it more effectively.

Making Living Cells Easier To See

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Written by Reuben Westmaas September 21, 2017