We talk to ex­pert João Pe­dro de Ma­gal­hães about an­i­mal age­ing

World of Animals - - Super Seniors -

What fas­ci­nates you about age­ing and longevity?

I de­cided early to work on age­ing be­cause I’m afraid to die, and age­ing is di­rectly or in­di­rectly the ma­jor rea­son peo­ple die in mod­ern so­ci­eties. So my mo­ti­va­tion was to solve what I see as the great­est cause of suf­fer­ing and death. In ad­di­tion, even though age­ing af­fects the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple, it re­mains a mystery in that we still don’t un­der­stand at the mech­a­nis­tic level why hu­mans age, or why longevity varies across species.

Why do we think some crea­tures live longer?

We don’t un­der­stand yet why there are dif­fer­ences in the longevity be­tween species, in­clud­ing be­tween very sim­i­lar species like chim­panzees and hu­mans. There’s ev­i­dence that an­i­mals that have a lower body tem­per­a­ture live longer, so some of the long­est-lived an­i­mals in the world, like the ocean qua­hog clam, live in very cold wa­ters. From an evo­lu­tion­ary per­spec­tive, we also un­der­stand that an­i­mals that live very long need to be pro­tected from preda­tors (such as by fly­ing or liv­ing on preda­tor-free is­lands), and con­versely an­i­mals that suf­fer a lot of pre­da­tion need to grow and re­pro­duce very quickly.

How do you de­ter­mine the age of wild an­i­mals?

It’s quite a dif­fi­cult process, and it de­pends on the species. For bow­head whales, for ex­am­ple, re­searchers quan­ti­fied bio­chem­i­cal changes in the eye lenses. These are not very ac­cu­rate meth­ods, how­ever, so we may well be over­es­ti­mat­ing or un­der­es­ti­mat­ing the longevity of many species.

What are some of the most ex­cit­ing re­cent dis­cov­er­ies in your field?

The dis­cov­ery that the Green­land shark can live for nearly 400 years has been very ex­cit­ing be­cause it’s the long­est-lived ver­te­brate. I think the other rev­o­lu­tion is at the level of DNA se­quenc­ing, in that we can now se­quence the genome of any species quickly and cheaply.

Tell us about the AnAge project

I’ve al­ways loved an­i­mals and wanted to un­der­stand dif­fer­ences in longevity. I started the AnAge data­base of age­ing longevity in an­i­mals when I was a PhD stu­dent. It started as a way of keep­ing track of records, and now we have over 4,000 species. It’s use­ful for sci­en­tists to study the evo­lu­tion of longevity and which fac­tors cor­re­late with longevity. It has been cited hun­dreds of times and is a ma­jor tool for re­searchers and the pub­lic.

Can hu­mans learn the se­cret of long life from an­i­mals?

Ab­so­lutely. My hy­poth­e­sis is that dif­fer­ent an­i­mals use dif­fer­ent tricks to live longer, and if we can un­ravel those tricks we may then use that knowl­edge to al­low peo­ple to live longer, health­ier lives. For ex­am­ple, if there are par­tic­u­lar mu­ta­tions in long-lived an­i­mals that con­fer longevity or dis­ease re­sis­tance, we may be able to de­velop drugs that mimic the ben­e­fits of those new mu­ta­tions so we can all ben­e­fit.

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