who wants to be immortal anyway?

The good news is that we found a way to drastically extend life. The bad news is that it only applies to some of the simplest worms on the planet.

old man with gray beard
Photo by Filipe Almeida

If you’ve ever read more than a few entries from The Daily Galaxy, you’ll notice a strange skew towards a sort of scientific sensationalism. Stories based on very limited and specific research are expanded into linchpins for brand new disciplines on the verge of getting us halfway across the galaxy in no time at all or giving us all an extra few centuries of life, if not immortality as in this post. Just take a quick look at it. An opening that tries to drive home that the author is being really serious. Nematode studies. Promises that in a few generations, this research will be applied to us. It has all the classic elements of a “someday day soon, you’ll live forever” story. But what about the reality? Are scientists really on the verge of finding a possible key to immortality?

There are a lot of anti-aging studies done on nematodes, particularly the caenorhabditis elegans species. In those studies, researchers tend to come up with all sorts of solutions for radically extending the lifespans of their experimental population, from anti-oxidants to the latest idea of getting somatic cells to act like tougher and more resilient germ cells. And mysteriously, almost everything we try to throw at those nematodes does make them live a lot longer. Then, when we try to scale things up to more complex organisms like us, we find that what seemed to double the c. elegans lifespan has few, if any, real benefits for us. The only exception so far seems to be calorie restriction and even then, the technique has its limits.

But because we like to read about how we could be immortal any day now, countless blogs and mainstream media sources dutifully hype up findings to make it seem as if science found the fountain of youth. If you were to look at the actual study referenced in the Galaxy, you’d see that it doesn’t say a word about immortality. It’s only claim is to show that germ cells, the cells used for reproduction, are a lot better at dealing with aging and stress than somatic cells, the cells which build tissues and organs in our bodies. The researchers then try to prove it by tricking somatic cell lines in nematodes to behave like germ cells and get a longer living, healthier organism. Immortality? Not even close. It seems that in its hunt for a few thousand extra eyeballs, the Galaxy is giving its readers a lot of false hope with a dollop of science.

See: Curran, S., Wu, X., Riedel, C., & Ruvkun, G. (2009). A soma-to-germline transformation in long-lived C. elegans mutants Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature08106

# science // aging / genetic engineering / genetics / research


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