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So You Want to Live Forever?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Editor’s Note: The following blog post first appeared May 19 on the World Science Festival’s Web site.

Most people look for the key to postponing old age in mega-antioxidant-loaded juices, extreme exercise regimens or expensive skin creams. Not Michael Rose. Rose, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Irvine and one of the panelists for the World Science Festival’s From Dust to…The Radical New Science of Longevity session on Thursday, June 2, turned to fruit flies.

He and his colleagues have spent many fruit fly lifetimes studying the short-lived insects. And in the past thirty years, they have found that by manually selecting the longest-living flies from each generation of a group, they could extend the amount of time later generations lived. The experiment, which has been running since 1981, has generated fruit flies that live nearly four times the length of the first average flies.

But rather than argue for some sort of dystopian global human breeding program—which wouldn’t likely see extreme benefits for hundreds or thousands of generations anyway—Rose has discerned a more subtle lesson. He found that fruit flies had genes that worked in two different ways to determine life span. The genes functioned one way in the flies’ younger years and another way in their insect-lives’ twilight years (which are closer to our weeks).

Other humble organisms are providing clues about the mysterious forces behind aging. Leonard Guarente, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has helped to describe a type of genetic regulator known as sirtuins, which help control life span in worms and yeast.

But parsing all of this out in people—who live relatively long and hardly laboratory-controlled lives—has, of course, been quite a challenge.

Some researchers have focused their attention on cells in the body that stop dividing—and how these aged pieces contribute to disease. Judith Campisi, a professor at The Buck Institute for Research on Aging and a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, is investigating these senior cells’ links to cancer and old age.

And Aubrey de Grey, editor-in-chief of Rejuvenation Research, is trying to put the pedal to the metal—or, perhaps more accurately, the antilock breaks—on aging. He’s pioneered an approach called SENS: "Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence" that promises to mend tissue damaged in the course of our everyday eating, living and breathing.

Come spend an hour and a half of your life to see Rose, Guarente, Campisi, and de Grey discuss the ways science is untangling the cause of—and possible cures for—this pesky thing called mortality.

From Dust to… The Radical New Science of Longevity takes place on Thursday, June 2, at 7:30 PM at The Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College. Get tickets or view the full festival schedule to learn more about the many other 2011 Festival programs.

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  1. 1. fyngyrz 11:48 am 05/25/2011

    "antilock breaks"…

    …should be "antilock brakes"

    Someone smack the editor.

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  2. 2. Steve D 4:16 pm 05/25/2011

    Don’t use the word "forever" to a geologist. It does not mean what you think it means. The accidental death rate in the U.S. is 38 per 100,000, meaning you have about one chance in 2600 of dying by accident each year. That means you’d have only a 15% probability of living a mere 5,000 years, 2% of living 10,000 and 0.04% chance of living 20,000. You wouldn’t even make it to the next Ice Age.

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  3. 3. jtdwyer 3:32 am 05/26/2011

    This is always a popular subject, especially for those desperately dying soon. But what would that do to the population now estimated to reach 10 billion by the end of the century? Stop having children? What would the implications to society be for that? Only allow the rich to live extended lives? that could also have some very severe social consequences… Only allow me to live forever without telling anyone else? That might work!

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  4. 4. ajinich 2:59 pm 05/30/2011

    Just please don’t let Sarah Palin know if any interesting results applicable to humans turn up. Remember her comments about research on fruit flies !! Anyway, who wants her around "forever"?

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  5. 5. kfreels 3:41 pm 05/30/2011

    I wouldn’t worry about the population. We’re already set to see a population decline start by mid-century. We aren’t even making enough babies to replace those who die. It’s not news that fertility rates are dropping. I suspect that this would continue naturally as people live even longer – especially since people become less sexually active as they get older.
    Of course that assumed no new technology further improving crop yields and the ability to use even more of the planet to live on. There is so much land that isn’t used for anything at all at the moment that if put to good use, would support a staggering number of people. And that doesn’t even include the oceans which make up most of our surface that could be used in new and exciting ways. Nor does it include other possibilities like getting off the planet entirely.
    The point is, to not save people’s lives because of a fear of overpopulation is just plain silly.

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  6. 6. dantevialetto 4:35 pm 05/30/2011

    Life forever doesn`t exist anyway. . . because for example the souls of the Paradies will ever have a finite duration of time more and more large, but they will never arrive at the eternity . . . for ever and ever!

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  7. 7. jtdwyer 5:35 pm 05/30/2011

    Right. The largest human population that’s ever existed, which has quadrupled since 1900 and is expected to increase 30% by 2050. If there is a huge die-off by then it will likely be the result of attempting to carry so many people. Until that happens, the root cause of most of humanity’s survival challenges is overpopulation, not low birth rates or premature morbidity. I suggest that minimizing human suffering is a more humane objective than extending lives.

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  8. 8. rwstutler 8:52 pm 06/4/2011

    This is in the same issue as the reprint of their article applauding the new "science" of eugenics.

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  9. 9. erikandreijarvi 1:53 pm 02/2/2014

    I want life longest is possibly in young age

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