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Gene regulation may hold the key to longer lifespans

The researchers discovered that long-lived organisms often have high expression of genes involved in DNA repair, RNA transport and the cytoskeletal organism, and low expression of genes involved in inflammation and energy expenditure.

University of Rochester researchers interested in longevity genetics propose new targets to combat aging and age-related disorders.

Mammals, which age at very different rates, were created through natural selection. For example, naked mole rats can live up to 41 years, which is over 10 times longer than mice and other rodents of comparable size.

What causes a longer lifespan? According to a recent study by University of Rochester biologists, a crucial piece of the puzzle lies in the mechanisms that control gene expression.

Vera Gorbunova, Doris Johns Cherry Professor of Biology and Medicine, Andrei Seluanov, the paper’s first author, Jinlong Lu, a postdoctoral fellow in Gorbunova’s lab, and other researchers examined genes linked to longevity in a recent article in cellular metabolism.

Their results showed that two regulatory mechanisms that control gene expression, known as circadian and pluripotent networks, are critical to longevity. The discoveries have implications for understanding how longevity occurs and for providing new targets to combat aging and age-related disorders.

Long-lived vs. short-lived species graphic

When comparing the gene expression patterns of 26 species with different lifespans, University of Rochester biologists found that the properties of the different genes are controlled by circadian or pluripotent networks. Photo credit: University of Rochester illustration / Julia Joshpe

Compare longevity genes

The researchers analyzed the gene expression patterns of 26 mammalian species with a maximum life span of two years (shrews) to 41 years (necked mole rats). They discovered thousands of genes that were either positively or negatively correlated with longevity and linked to a species’ maximum lifespan.

They found that long-lived species tend to have low expression of genes involved in energy metabolism and inflammation; and high expression of genes involved

DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is a molecule made up of two long strands of nucleotides that wrap around each other, forming a double helix. It is the genetic material of humans and almost all other organisms, containing genetic instructions for development, function, growth and reproduction. Almost every cell in the human body has the same DNA. Most DNA is found in the nucleus (there it is called nuclear DNA), but a small amount of DNA can also be found in the mitochondria (there it is called mitochondrial DNA or mtDNA).

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Two pillars of longevity

When the researchers analyzed the mechanisms that regulate the expression of these genes, they found two major systems at play. The negative lifespan genes—those involved in energy metabolism and inflammation—are controlled by circadian networks. That is, their expression is limited to a particular time of day, which may help limit the overall expression of the genes in long-lived species.

This means we can exercise at least some control over the negative lifespan genes.

“To live longer, we have to maintain healthy sleep schedules and avoid exposure to light at night as it may increase the expression of the negative lifespan genes,” Gorbunova says.

On the other hand, positive lifespan genes—those involved in DNA repair, RNA transport, and microtubules—are controlled by what is called the pluripotency network. The pluripotency network is involved in reprogramming somatic cells—any cells that are not reproductive cells—into embryonic cells, which can more readily rejuvenate and regenerate, by repackaging DNA that becomes disorganized as we age.

“We discovered that evolution has activated the pluripotency network to achieve a longer lifespan,” Gorbunova says.

The pluripotency network and its relationship to positive lifespan genes is, therefore “an important finding for understanding how longevity evolves,” Seluanov says. “Furthermore, it can pave the way for new antiaging interventions that activate the key positive lifespan genes. We would expect that successful antiaging interventions would include increasing the expression of the positive lifespan genes and decreasing the expression of negative lifespan genes.”

Reference: “Comparative transcriptomics reveals circadian and pluripotency networks as two pillars of longevity regulation” by J. Yuyang Lu, Matthew Simon, Yang Zhao, Julia Ablaeva, Nancy Corson, Yongwook Choi, KayLene Y.H. Yamada, Nicholas J. Schork, Wendy R. Hood, Geoffrey E. Hill, Richard A. Miller, Andrei Seluanov and Vera Gorbunova, 16 May 2022, Cell Metabolism.
DOI: 10.1016/j.cmet.2022.04.011

The study was funded by the National Institute on Aging. 

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