Scientists found a way to make yeast cells live longer. What could that mean for our lifespan?
Can cells be engineered to slow their aging? The answer, explained in a new article in the journal Science, is yes.
A team of researchers at UC San Diego managed to reengineer a gene circuit that guides cells to one of two biological tracks.
“So that a cell, following its direction, will keep changing between two tracks. And it never gets a chance to accelerate. And this will dramatically slow down the progression to when the cell dies,” said Nan Hao, a professor of molecular biology at UCSD.
Hao is the lead author of the Science article and he has been studying cell life and death for many years.
He uses the example of a car with access to two different racing lanes. The gene circuit gets the cell to switch from one track to the other, therefore slowing it down and reducing the damage it would take from normal aging. Biologically it’s moving from a DNA track to a mitochondrial track.
“Slow down aging, slow down the damage accumulation. And like a car racing, even though you’re changing the tracks, you’re still going forward. Just not as fast,” Hao said.
Professor Hao did his experiments on yeast cells, which he says behave in a similar way to human cells. The engineering tool kit came from a process called synthetic biology.
“With synthetic biology we can fix and enhance our cells the same way that a mechanical engineer can fix and enhance our cars,” he said.
A cell’s oscillation between aging tracks slows the deterioration of cells, and if it can work on human cells that will also slow the deterioration of us.
This new research seems to show that biological engineering could extend human life beyond any of our previous expectations. Future therapies could involve introducing engineered cells into people so they can replicate.
Asked whether this will make people in the future live longer, Hao said “probably.” But he said the goal is not necessarily to extend human life but to help fight age-related diseases like Alzheimers and Parkinson’s.
“And age-related chronic diseases are a major economic burden globally. And our goal really is to extend the healthy lifetime as much as possible,” he said.
The next step is to test his process on human cells, not yeast.