Those afraid of dying young may find some of their fears dashed after reading this story. And then reality will come crashing back down on them later, when I’ve got nothing to do with it. The secret to living forever wasn’t available to generations past, because it just could not have happened. You have to crush up the bones of George Burns, Milton Berle, and Dick Clark, and smoke them in a cigarette tied together with one of Casey Kasem’s hairs. Just in case that sounds completely unfeasible, the real facts can be found when Germany’s Kiel University and the University Medical Center Schleswig-Holstein (UKSH) publish their study into how the polyp Hydra is linked to the human aging process.
Immortality is embedded in the realms of fiction, but the freshwater polyp Hydra is as close to an exception to the rule as is available for researching. While I’d love to believe the nifty radial symmetric design is what makes its life cycle everlasting, but it’s the simplicity of the organism, and its self-contained budding reproductive process that makes this happen. The stem cells necessary for this type of reproduction are capable of continuous regeneration. Stem cells in humans tend to lose that ability, and the tissue ages, including the heart muscles. The study, found in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, delves deeper into Hydra’s stem cell mysteries.
Until now, no one knew if the FoxO gene, the well-known branch of proteins involved in all animal and human cell proliferation, played any particular role in aging, or in the decrease and inactivity of stem cells as humans get older. The researchers isolated Hydra’s stem cells and genetically modified them with different forms of FoxO: normal, inactive, and enhanced. They found that those without FoxO possess far fewer stem cells, while those with inactive FoxO also saw a marked change.
To me, that kind of gene isolation would be the hard part, as the scientists now have the task of testing it in a multitude of ways. Given the knowledge that people who live beyond 100 years have been shown to possess highly active FoxO, it looks like the seemingly innocuous discovery of why a simple sea creature survives will lead to major advancements in human longevity. And if nothing I just said turns out to be true, I hope I live long enough to eat those words.