There is no denying that we all age and grow old, in fact, all living things do too. There’s no changing that but what if you could change the way you age? Assistant professor Javier Apfeld, of the College of Science at Northeastern University, believes worms could be the solution to understanding this aging process.
What could worms tell us about human aging? A lot more than one might think. “What controls how long an organism lives?” Apfeld asks. “I study that question in worms, which are a great model because they live only about two weeks, so I can do experiments quickly and relatively inexpensively. Of course, worms are worms—they’re not mice, they’re not humans. However, many of the genes that affect lifespan in worms affect lifespan in other organisms. Worms are, in many ways, leading the way in understanding aging.”
In his lab at Northeastern, Apfeld manipulates the worms’ genes and the environment in an attempt to learn what factors lengthen or shorten their lives—and even whether there’s a limit to how long they can live. The answers could provide clues to increasing our own longevity. His research focuses on how “oxidation” and “reduction”—the trading of electrons between protein molecules—relates to aging. “We are trying to understand the causes of aging by linking the mechanisms that control the oxidation of proteins at the cellular level with the mechanisms that determine the lifespan of the whole organism,” Apfeld says.
His team discovered that a compound called glutathione—found in animal and plant tissues, including those of worms and humans—plays a very different role in redox than originally thought. Rather than acting as a buffer against oxidation, it may amplify or temper messages controlling the process. The finding could change the course of research into the role of oxidation in age-related diseases. It could also have important implications for treatments, including the use of antioxidant supplements.