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Question Your World: Can We Increase Our Longevity?

Humanity has been fascinated by the concept of longevity. In the past 200,000 years of residence on this planet we've implemented a lot of technological changes that impact nearly every aspect of our lives. Our ability to eat food comfortably, stay warm in cold weather, and even transplant vital organs help improve our standards of living for comfort and health. So, can we increase our longevity? Find out in this Question Your World radio report produced by the Science Museum of Virginia.

In the 1500's Ponce deLóen sought out a form of increased longevity. He and his colleagues traveled from Spain to what is now Florida in search of the mythical Fountain of Youth. The promise of a longer life and healing tired bodies seemed like a venture worth the risk of going into unfamiliar territory. Sadly for Ponce there was no fountain of youth and he eventually passed away, though his legacy still lives on. This is one of the many examples of how humanity has tried to wrap its head around the concept of longevity.

Well, recently, some scientists have kind of picked up where Ponce and others left off. Humanity is still captivated by the sense of increasing longevity. These Buck institute scientists are trying an entirely different approach which has produced some bizarre, but fascinating results. What's so different about this attempt to grasp longer longevity? Unlike many examples from the past this group of biologists is using logic, science, and hard data. Though there's one more thing that makes this even more interesting, their test subjects are fruit flies.

Fruit flies, like many other living animals, have very similar body functions and procedures. They have a vast amount of biological functions that can easily be seen in other living animals, including humans. The goal behind testing these ideas on fruit flies made even more sense when you factor in their life span. The average fruit fly will live for about roughly a month to a month and a half. Here the goal was to see if any changes could be made to the fruit fly that could extend its life even just by a little. That added time to the insect's life would shed some light on how this may impact other organisms and their longevity. For example in comparison a fruit fly's average life would be about 40 days, where as a human can live about 75 to 80-some years. So, there is a practice that can enhance the insect's longevity, in theory other animals should see a proportional growth in their longevity.

Though the fruit fly is a small creature, it still has a lot of parts. So, the first step was to hone in on where to examine this creature for getting a better understanding of its longevity. These scientists concluded that one of the major issues pertaining to a living system's longevity is the impact of the immune system and its ability to best coordinate the natural collection of bacteria that reside within the creature, be it a fruit fly, a goat, or a human. This is where some remarkable new data was observed. 

As a body ages it start to produce FOXO genes. These genes impact the gut by diminishing the immune system's ability to gauge and curate the bacterial colonies on the gut floor. These bacteria are vital for many biological processes. The folks at the Buck institute noticed that there was a way to slow down the impact of the FOXO genes, a protein. PGRP, peptidoglycan recognition proteins, are commonly associated with immune system happenings. When conducting this study the scientists noticed that the introduction of PGRP seemed to reverse the production of FOXO genes thus allowing the immune system to function a little better and better deal with the bacterial colonies on the gut floor. This enhancement of gut bacteria and PGRPs certainly seems to have increased the lifespan of these fruit flies.

This research is still very new and a lot more work still remains to begin, but this is a pretty impressive story to add to the library of humanity's quest to better understand longevity. Think about it, in the 1500s there were ships and crews ready to set sail all over the world to look for an object or process that would enhance and extend lives. Now a days the quest for these goals is still being researched, the only difference is we're now using logic, science, and hard data. The goals remain the same, but no one had to make a trip to Florida for this.

Article by Prabir MehtaScience Museum of Virginia

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