Genes might play unrecognized role in aging, intervention

The "fountain of youth" might really be more like a light switch, according to research underway at the University of Minnesota.

While aging is familiar to all of us, exactly how it occurs on a molecular basis has been an area of intense study and interest. We take it for granted that different species age at different rates, yet we do not have a good understanding of why and how. Most mammals have similar numbers of genes, many of which show conserved function, yet there are several orders of magnitude differences in lifespan across mammals. For instance, mice and small animals live shorter lifespans, yet other animals such as bats, naked mole rats, whales, elephants and primates age significantly slower.

What is different in the genomes of these species that allows them to live so long? It is only with the advent of full genomes for hundreds of species that we can begin to compare lifespans between species with differences in their genomes.

Research led by University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences Assistant Professor Christopher Faulk reveals that regions that control gene expression have evolved to contain more epigenetic switches in about 5 percent of our genes. With collaborator Adam McLain out of SUNY Polytechnic, his research revealed that these switches control the amount of protein made by these genes, rather than the type of protein, and may be able to prevent these protein levels from changing in animals that have longer lifespans. 

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