Biology

Biologists beat back death in fruit flies. Humans next?

Biologists beat back death in ...
A sample of the mitochondria (shown in green) of the fruit flies used in the study. Upper left was taken at 10 days old, upper right at 28 days, and both lower images are from 37 days old. The bottom-right image though, shows how the mitochondria was reduced to a size typical of younger flies after treatment with Drp1 protein.
A sample of the mitochondria (shown in green) of the fruit flies used in the study. Upper left was taken at 10 days old, upper right at 28 days, and both lower images are from 37 days old. The bottom-right image though, shows how the mitochondria was reduced to a size typical of younger flies after treatment with Drp1 protein.
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A sample of the mitochondria (shown in green) of the fruit flies used in the study. Upper left was taken at 10 days old, upper right at 28 days, and both lower images are from 37 days old. The bottom-right image though, shows how the mitochondria was reduced to a size typical of younger flies after treatment with Drp1 protein.
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A sample of the mitochondria (shown in green) of the fruit flies used in the study. Upper left was taken at 10 days old, upper right at 28 days, and both lower images are from 37 days old. The bottom-right image though, shows how the mitochondria was reduced to a size typical of younger flies after treatment with Drp1 protein.

Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) have figured out a way to extend the life of female fruit flies by 20 percent by manipulating what the school has called a "cellular time machine." The biologists who carried out the work are hopeful that their findings will have implications for human aging and help fight off age-related diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

The researchers focused on mitochondria, tiny structures that act a bit like digestive organs inside our cells. These "cellular power plants" take the chemicals and oxygen in our systems provided through food and respiration, and convert them into a molecule known as ATP, which the cell can then use as food. When mitochondria age however, they can become damaged and build up in the body, creating a toxic environment conducive to disease formation.

In the research, UCLA biologists studied the mitochondria in fruit flies and figured out that as the insects reach middle age – which, for a fruit fly, is about one month old – their mitochondria change shape, making it tough for their cells to clear them out when the organelles are no longer functioning properly.

"We think the fact that the mitochondria become larger and elongated impairs the cell's ability to clear the damaged mitochondria," said David Walker, a UCLA professor of integrative biology and physiology, and the study's senior author. "And our research suggests dysfunctional mitochondria accumulate with age, rather than being discarded."

So the scientists gave the flies a hand by increasing a protein called Drp1 for one week when they reached 30 days of age. The result was that the damaged mitochondria was broken up into smaller pieces that the flies were able to expel from their cells. This not only led female flies to live about 20 percent longer and male flies to live about 12 percent longer than their typical two-month lifespans, but the researchers also found that the flies had increased energy levels and endurance.

What's more, the boost in Drp1 also held off a condition in which the flies get leaky intestines about a week before they die. The condition is not only a precursor to death in fruit flies but it has also been implicated in the death of monkeys, worms and mice.

"It's like we took middle-aged muscle tissue and rejuvenated it to youthful muscle," said Walker. "We actually delayed age-related health decline. And seven days of intervention was sufficient to prolong their lives and enhance their health."

The biologists also further experimented with a protein called Mfn, which keeps mitochondria from clumping together and getting too big for cells to deal with. When they turned its production off in the flies, they saw similar benefits in terms of health and life extension.

"You can either break up the mitochondria with Drp1 or prevent them from fusing by inactivating Mfn," said Anil Rana, a UCLA project scientist and the study's lead author. "Both have the same effect: making the mitochondria smaller and extending lifespan."

The team hopes that it may eventually be possible to create a drug that would work in the same way as the proteins to not only extend and improve the lives of humans, but to help stave off age-related diseases. Walker points to the fact that the treatment worked so fast as a major plus, considering that it could lessen the negative effects often associated with the long-term use of pharmaceuticals.

The findings have been reported in the journal Nature Communications.

Source: UCLA

8 comments
aksdad
Be afraid. Be very afraid.
CAVUMark
With the increasing population, 9.7 billion expected by 2050, I am not seeing the benefit to living longer. The strain on the earth and our psyche would be bad news.
Helios
We've more than doubled human life expectancy in the last 150 years. I think we've already surpassed the marginal benefit of increased lifespan. The effort should be made to educate people about the necessity for zero population growth and end of life planning.
Captain Danger
Helios In the big picture yes, we don't need more people on this planet On the more personal level I would want this. Maybe restrict it to those that can afford it.
Bob Flint
Contrary to popular belief we have misused the available resources we currently have. Land is plentiful for farming yet we are terribly inefficient in it's use, and as the climax changes we must also adapt and become much more frugal with the resources we still have. Unfortunately those in power & with wealth and control continue on the path of greed & destruction... Living longer will likely exasperate the already strained situation, unless large numbers are culled in natural process of evolution by thirst, hunger, or disease :(
Douglas Bennett Rogers
The populations that might have access to this are already reproducing at less than replacement rate.
BleedingEdge
Two negative aspects of this are the inevitable high cost of drugs that could increase life expectancy and the ethical question of extending lifespans on an over-populated planet. Countries like Japan would benefit from this twofold due to their declining birth rate and a different attitude towards the aging and may allow later retirement ages as well as an extended period period of mentoring young scientists, engineers and other skilled labor segments prior to retirement. In countries like the US a voluntary change of retirement to say 75 or more might reduce the strain on Entitlement and extend the pay-in period of those remaining in the workforce. It could also defer the costs related to care for the current post-retirement population. Many in their sixties would likely defer retirement if the felt like they were still in their forties.
Ralf Biernacki
@CAVUMark, @Helios: I am encouraging you to lead by example.