US boffins believe they may be on the track of longevity-enhancing technology, by analysing the unusual proteins found in naked mole rats. These wrinkly, hairless burrowing creatures from East Africa live many times longer than other rodents, and remain attractive, fit and virile the whole time.
MIT Tech Review reports on the research by US-based brainbox Rochelle Buffenstein and her fellow mole-rat experts. Subscribers to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences can read their scholarly paper, Protein stability and resistance to oxidative stress are determinants of longevity in the longest-living rodent, the naked mole-rat here.
It seems that the nudie subterranean rodents frequently live well into their third decade, whereas more typical furry mice kick the bucket from old age before turning four. Better yet, the burrowing baldies stay in good shape for most of their lifespan rather than becoming old and busted like other species. Lady mole-rats are normally able to have babies well past the age of twenty, roughly analogous to a seventy-year-old woman remaining in the physical condition of her early to mid thirties.
Or as Buffenstein puts it:
Naked mole-rats live in captivity for more than 28.3 years, approximately 9 times longer than similar-sized mice. They maintain body composition from 2 to 24 years, and show only slight age-related changes ... breeding females show no decline in fertility even when well into their third decade of life ... they do not show the typical age-associated acceleration in mortality risk that characterizes every other known mammalian species and may therefore be the first reported mammal showing negligible senescence over the majority of their long lifespan. Clearly physiological and biochemical processes in this species have evolved to dramatically extend healthy lifespan. The challenge that lies ahead is to understand what these mechanisms are.
Rather than any possible health benefit from living a hairless life deep underground, Buffenstein and her colleagues believe that the mole-rats' longevity and prolonged youthfulness result from the structure of their bodily proteins. The thinking is that protein molecules fold and unfold as life goes on, and in some cases they get damaged.
Damaged protein accumulating in the tissues is what gradually does for us, according to Buffenstein and the others. Such processes may also contribute to diseases associated with ageing such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
"Our first plan is to try and identify the proteins that protect and are protected in naked mole rats," Buffenstein told Tech Review.
The MIT scribes say that Buffenstein believes that "uncovering tricks that slow-aging animals use to extend their life span could point to strategies for alleviating diseases of aging in humans".
Not quite an anti-ageing pill or miracle cream or whatever on the horizon, then, but perhaps a step in the right direction. A bit of miracle mole rat crumple-protein purge lotion might one day see us all fit and frisky into our eighth or ninth decade, followed by a sudden and comparatively painless fade to black. ®