A Molecular "Odometer" for Aging
Fellow: Adolfo Sanchez-Blanco
Mentor: Stuart Kim, PhD, Professor of Developmental Biology and of Genetics and, by courtesy, of Chemical and Systems Biology
SCL Fellow Adolfo Sanchez-Blanco begins presentation of his work with pictures of two Cadillacs. If you are choosing to buy one, how can you tell which will last longer? Although they look identical, their odometers may tell a different story. One may have more remaining life than the other. What, he asks, is the analogy in animals? Is there a biological “odometer” that can indicate remaining lifespan? Typically animals, including humans, have lifespans that vary widely and unpredictably. The cause of this variation, known as stochasticity, has eluded scientists.
For his postdoctoral research, Sanchez-Blanco chose as his subject the tiny C. elegans worm. These worms can be bred to have identical genetic makeup. They also have another key property—they are transparent. To exploit this, Sanchez- Blanco used a technique known as florescent labeling to develop 8 molecular gene markers that literally glow under the right lighting and are visible through the transparent worm. The markers all typically decline with age. Sanchez- Blanco was thus able to breed worms of identical age, identical genetics, and whose key gene expression could be viewed while the worms were alive. He raised these worms under identical conditions to minimize environmental variability.
The results were compelling. Sanchez-Blanco was able to identify two markers, that when combined, accounted for up to 49% of lifespan variation. In plain terms, he was able to show that half of the worms’ lifespan variation could be predicted solely by genetic means. This type of basic research may eventually lead to better understanding of the mechanisms of aging. Upon completion of his Center on Longevity Fellowship, Sanchez-Blanco returned to his native Spain and is now continuing his genetic aging research for the Spanish National Research Council.