Youth wasted on the fruit flies

Death. It is the single most poignant similarity between us all. Regardless of how one lives their life, safe and secure, reckless and adventurous, we are always subconsciously aware that the light at the end of the tunnel is coming.
Depressing isn’t it? Wouldn’t it be nice to live longer than we do?

The truth is that life expectency in humans has been rising for generations, and the implications of new genetic research on fruit flies may help in keeping with this trend towards longer-life. At the University of Los Angeles, scientists have celebrated a marvel of a gene in fruit flies that slows down the process of aging and hope it could be applied in humans.

Their study, “Modulation of Longevity and Tissue Homeostasis by the Drosophila PGC-1 Homolog,” came out in the Nov. 7 issue of Cell Metabolism.

When activated by reseachers, the gene, identified as PCG-1, accomplishes this slowing by increasing the amount of mitochondrial activity in the digestive tract of fruit flies. The mitochondria, which translate energy into usable forms that are then used throughout the whole cell, increase the effectiveness of the intestine, maintained by adult stem cells within the digestive tract. This slows the aging of tissue cells in the intestine, ultimately benefiting the whole animal.

Although life-extending genes have not been found in other tissue systems (such as muscle or nervous tissue) of the Drosophila melanogaster, the PCG-1 gene has been seen to have a prominent role in healthy aging, increasing some flies’ life expectancy by 50 per cent!

But what does this mean for you and me, and our goal of living forever? Many genes occur in both humans and fruit flies, such as the disease genes linked to some types of cancer. Strangely enough, the PCG-1 gene is present in humans as well, performing the exact same function — increasing and regulating mitochondria activity — as seen in the laboratory fruit flies in question.

This is certainly not the first time that fruit flies have been used in ground breaking scientific research. The common fruit fly, or D. melanogaster, has many qualities that make it the perfect candidate for laboratory genetics. Fruit flies, in an enclosed environment, reproduce at a rapid rate and expire within roughly 10 to 50 days. For their size, D. melongaster also have very large chromosomes that can be easily observed. With only four chromosomes to study (compared to 46 in humans), fruit flies became man’s best friend when it came to understanding the wonders of our (and their) genetic machinery.

Aging is a peculiar thing, and death itself can be an accumulation of many different factors at the environmental and individual level. To say this gene will single-handedly increase longevity is a gross overstatement. At the same time, one cannot undermine the importance of the role played by PCG-1 in assisting the functioning of the body’s digestive system. As David Walker, assistant professor of integrative biology and physiology at UCLA and a senior author of this study, puts it: “We all think about protecting the brain and the heart, but the intestine is a vital tissue type for healthy aging.” Although the intestine is an important digestive organ of any animal, providing nutrient uptake and waste management, it is not connected to the process of living longer as much as the heart and brain. It’s important to remember that all organs within the body function in concert, that they all have some say in how long you have to live.
What this writer finds fascinating about the study is that it addresses one of the most fundamental issues we as people encounter. Health issues like cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease are all related to aging, and to tackle the issue head on in a study of this calibre is a step in the right direction towards developing therapeutic advancements in many different scientific fields.

illustration by lauren boulet

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