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African fish holds key to extended life

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Some creatures are able to ‘pause’ ageing or be immune to its effects entirely. This phenomenon is known as ‘diapause’ and a team of researchers have finally uncovered some of it’s mechanisms in the African Killifish.
This fish can pause its life processes in response to environmental threats such as its pond drying up. The embryos can halt their development for years, longer than the adult’s entire life expectancy. This has allowed the fish to survive annual droughts. The breakthrough came in revealing that this ‘pause’ has no effect on the fish’s future development, hinting that the processes halts the effect of time on the animal’s cells.
To achieve this suspension of life, the fish’s cells increase their production of the protein CBX7. This in turn binds to their DNA and changes the activity of certain genes. The genes involved with metabolism and muscle function seem to be affected the most, explaining how muscle function is maintained throughout the suspended state.
These are not the only animals that can slow their ageing; both naked mole rats and turtles are examples of animals that exhibit much longer lifespans than similar species. Naked mole rats’ cells contain fewer mitochondria: these are what produce energy in the cells and allow for respiration to occur. With fewer mitochondria, the mole rats use less energy and oxygen. This means that there is less damage to their cells through wear and tear, as well as allowing them to use fats as a source of energy rather than sugar; a more efficient process when bursts of energy are not required.
Tortoises and turtles are similarly extraordinarily long lived, with the oldest coming in at 186 years old. They have notably evolved to be able to live in a state of anoxia; a total lack of oxygen. Humans can remain alive for around 2 minutes before suffering permanent organ damage in low-oxygen environments. Turtles on the other hand have been shown to be perfectly comfortable going a year without oxygen. Like the naked mole rats and the killifish, they achieve this by slowing their metabolism to almost zero, shutting down genes and tissues that require a lot of energy.
In comparison, human cells require a constant supply of energy and oxygen to allow for our high-energy lifestyle. Although speculative at present, it is possible that using the same diapause biomechanics could be used to slow ageing process in humans. Other exciting potential could lie in organ regeneration, reversing the biological clock.

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Fergus Elliott

Science Editor | 19-20

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