João Pedro de Magalhães
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B-5000 Namur. Belgium.
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Scientist Suggests that the Secret of Eternal Youth Might Be Found in Reptiles

Namur, Belgium - 31/05/02 - A Portuguese scientist suggests in the June issue of Experimental Gerontology that the secret of eternal youth might be found in reptiles. João Pedro de Magalhães, a researcher in the biology of aging, suggests that research in certain species of reptiles, such as species that appear not to age, might lead to discoveries regarding the mechanisms of aging and could eventually lead to therapies capable of slowing aging in humans.

The study is based on the relationship, demonstrated many years ago, between size and longevity. When comparing different species of mammals, scientists discovered that bigger species live, on average, longer and age slower. (Note that the same relationship does occur between individuals of the same species.) What the Portuguese scientist verified was that several reptilian species live much longer than expected from their size, even in captivity. There are even some species, like certain turtles, that appear not to age. In addition, most studied reptiles feature oocyte regeneration, which means females never reach menopause and can increase their reproductive output with age.

A similar phenomenon, yet less intense, of delayed aging in relation to mammals occurs in amphibians, certain fishes and even birds. The study also suggests that mammalian aging is accelerated because mammals spent around 100 million years as little animals. When the first mammals evolved from reptiles, they spent millions of years as small animals in a world ruled by dinosaurs. During this period, due to the relationship between size and longevity, our ancestry had presumably a very short life span. The hypothesis defended in the article is that the genes that allow reptiles to age slower than mammals suffered mutations or were lost by our ancestry during that period, since, according to evolutionary theory, there was no reason to maintain those genes. Even if some mechanisms to slow aging evolved in certain mammals, like humans, after the dinosaurs disappeared, identifying the genes in reptiles that allows them to have such long longevity could be important to determine the causes of human aging and how to slow the process.

João Pedro de Magalhães is a young microbiologist from Portugal working as a doctoral fellow at the University of Namur in Belgium. His work involves not only the evolution of aging but also studies on telomerase, the enzyme capable of "immortalizing" human cells. Since it is impossible to study reptiles that live several decades, the solution might be to study the cells of these animals and compare, for example, mechanisms of DNA repair between mammals and reptiles. In addition, it would be useful, the article defends, to sequence the genome of reptilian species.

For more information:
To obtain the article: (Experimental Gerontology of June, 2002, volume 37, p. 769-775).
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