Live Long and Prosper: Scientists Discover a New Key to the Aging Process
What to Know
Scientists, long interested in what causes us to age, have recently focused on epigenetics, the study of how different factors that affect our genes can influence the progression of diseases like diabetes. For example, an expectant mother’s diet may leave “epigenetic marks” on her unborn child’s genes that increase the child’s risk of disease later in life. In this study, researchers looked at Werner syndrome, a rare disorder that causes early aging. They wanted to learn if “marks” caused by the disease might offer clues about aging and disease.
Werner syndrome affects the WRN gene, which appears to help control the aging process, so the researchers manipulated human embryonic stem cells in a laboratory to learn how mutations to that gene might speed up aging. They then compared what they learned to gene activity in six younger and six older people.
The researchers found that Werner syndrome appears to disrupt certain bundles of DNA known as heterochromatin, which may control gene activity related to aging. The heterochromatin bundles of the older people resembled those found in Werner syndrome, suggesting that these changes also contribute to normal aging.
Based on this discovery, scientists may eventually be able to develop techniques to change epigenetic marks and thereby alter the aging process and the treatment of diseases such as diabetes. However, this research is in its earliest stages, and much more needs to be learned before it’s known whether any effective treatments can be created from this and related research.
A Werner syndrome stem cell model unveils heterochromatin alterations as a driver of human aging. By Weiqi Zhang and colleagues. Science. 348;6239, 1160-1163 https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aaa1356