By: Stephanie Miceli
This article is part of a series of profiles on the 2020 winners of the National Academy of Medicine’s Healthy Longevity Catalyst Awards — part of the Healthy Longevity Global Competition, a multiyear, multimillion-dollar international competition seeking breakthrough innovations to improve physical, mental, and social well-being for people as they age. Read more about the award and the winners’ research and ideas for promoting healthy aging.
What Can Lobsters, Clams, and Rockfish Tell Us About Human Aging?
Some species of rockfish only live to age 7. Others live over 200 years while maintaining the necessary functions to find food, mate, resist disease, and evade predators.
These aren’t isolated incidents. Multiple species of rockfish can maintain their health for centuries, and Stephen Treaster, a postdoctoral research fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital, says there’s no reason people can’t either. “Longevity is just another quirk of evolution. Some species live longer than others, and the key must be in their genome.”
Treaster, recently named one of the winners of the National Academy of Medicine’s Healthy Longevity Catalyst Awards, will use the funding to further explore how some rockfish age so successfully, while others don’t, and see how those lessons might apply to humans.
“When you think about the diseases that plague society — cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s — the biggest risk is not genetics or lifestyle. It’s age. Yet some animals live longer than us without these problems.”
Thanks to collaborators at Oregon State and the University of Washington, Treaster has tissue samples from a range of rockfish in his Boston lab. He has sequenced and analyzed 24 of the shortest- and longest-lived for a “genomic signature for longevity.” The next step is to validate these genes in conventional lab models for effect life span and health span.
“I’d like as many healthy years as possible, and I have people I care about who I hope live long, healthy lives,” says Treaster. “But up until a few decades ago, people thought scientists were crazy to challenge aging.”
The ‘Short-evity’ Problem in Longevity Research
Glenn Gerhard, chair of the department of medical genetics and molecular biochemistry at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University, also a winner of this year’s Catalyst Awards, agrees that progress in aging research has stalled. Part of the problem, he says, is that much of aging research has been driven by organisms that only live a few weeks to a few months — partially due to competitive grant cycles and the pressure to generate constant data. But that’s only going to yield “short-evity” research, he warns.
“If we want to understand longevity, we need to study organisms that live long,” says Gerhard. “Let’s look at evolution, and the fact that so few species get to live to 100 years or more, and explore that inherent natural phenomenon.”
The “Centenarian Species Genomes Project” hypothesizes that sequencing the genomes of species that live 100 years will unveil insights about the human health span. Gerhard and his co-investigator, Sudhir Khumar, director of Temple University’s Institute of Genomics and Evolutionary Medicine, will analyze the genomes of species — including the American lobster (100 year maximum longevity) and ocean quahog clam (500 year maximum longevity) — and identify shared characteristics that enable them to live to 100 years of more. Thanks to advances in computational technology, today, it’s more time- and cost-efficient to sequence genomes than it has ever been before.
If Gerhard’s team finds a gene associated with longevity, the next step would be to implant it in shorter-lived animal models (for example, they’d test if the clam gene extends the life span of mice).
“The ultimate goal is to have an impact on people. Often, these things start with basic science and you see where it’ll lead.”
Aging, after all, remains an unsolved problem of biology. While more people are taking an interest in aging and life span, awareness on health span is still lagging, Gerhard adds, and his team is trying to change that.
“You don’t want people living long if they have a chronic disease or require constant care. But you can’t live long by being unhealthy,” he says. “The classical thinking has been that there’s a maximum life span for humans, and they’re healthy to a certain point before everything comes apart. We don’t want to extend the disease span or period of disability. In order to extend the maximum life span, we have to extend the healthspan with it.”