Worming our Way Towards Immortality

Stanley 1Beginning around 3,000 years’ ago, Sumerian poets wrote down an orally-transmitted story, The Epic of Gilgamesh. In one section of the poem, the demigod protagonist Gilgamesh treks across the world fighting horse-size scorpions and paddling across a deadly ocean on a broken boat in search of immortality. In the end, he dies.

It is a grimly held certainty that all animals—ancient Sumerian demigods included—grow old, and that aging also has a variety of side-effects. Although it most famously causes death, aging also increases an individuals’ susceptibility to a wide variety of diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s Disease, and Osteoporosis.

Although death is probably going to stay unavoidable for the foreseeable future, modern science may be able to minimize aging’s effects. It is becoming increasingly likely that medicine will be able to make modest increases to healthy lifespan and significantly lower occurrences of aging-related diseases. And many of the recent scientific advances in aging have been spearheaded by a pioneering microscopic nematode.

The anti-aging nematodes are C. elegans: tiny, see-through, and self-fertilizing worms with short lifespans (around 20 days). And, importantly: they’re animals, which means that their genetics tend to have more in common with humans than with bacteria and yeast.

Since C. elegans are easy to genetically manipulate, laboratories around the world will purposefully mutate C. elegans’ genome to see what changes. Around 25 years ago, these genetic mix-ups produced a very interesting effect: a worm that had a change in a single DNA base pair lived twice as long. Even more surprisingly, it was soon shown that the genetic mutation that increased lifespan in worms also does so in flies, mice, and very likely humans as well. And, while we can’t go around making mutations in human DNA, insight from follow-up studies inspired a variety of potential treatments for age-related diseases.

Over the past year, thanks to Northeastern’s generous support through the Honors Early Research Award, I’ve had the opportunity to contribute to the growing anti-aging effort. I’ve been lucky enough to work with the research team fearlessly led by COS Assistant Professor Javier Apfeld, who worked in the lab that discovered the first long-lived worm in the 90’s (http://apfeldlab.strikingly.com/). After Dr. Apfeld opened his own lab at Northeastern last October, he trained me on the basics of working with worms and genetics and guided me in investigating the genetic interactions between certain regulatory genes that regulate various aspects of aging, such as overall lifespan and resistance to stressors.

Our work continues as we learn about more specific aspects of aging. We put genetically-encoded sensors into worms, we poison worms, we move worms around, we make worms live long and we make worms live short, all in hope that we can form a more fundamental understanding of why animals age. If you ever want to find us, the Apfeld Lab is united under one plaque, outside of our lab in 409 Mugar, that reads: “Worm Immortality Team”


Julian Stanley, Biochemistry