We are used by now to science rocking our world view: a tiny amount of uranium can destroy a city; there is no absolute reference frame for time and space; we are made of cells too small to see that nevertheless contain three billion base pairs of DNA and many thousands of discrete functional chemicals.
But some facts of life seem resistant to being overturned by science. We might have increased the average human lifespan slightly but the ageing process is surely inexorable and irreversible? But no: it now appears that there is a specific programme in living cells that seems to regulate ageing: it is not a matter of wear and tear. Even before the genomics behind this were discovered, there was evidence in the very rare disease of premature ageing in which children die in their teens looking like 90-year-olds.
Michael Fossel is a distinguished American clinician and researcher. The crux around which his potential revolution revolves is the discovery that there are caps – telomeres – on the ends of the chromosomes in all higher animals that shorten every time the cell divides. These caps comprise repeated sequences of DNA, and the loss of a portion of the telomeres every time a cell divides sets a limit to the number of cell divisions possible: as the telomeres get shorter, the cell-repair mechanisms start to fail and the diseases of ageing are the result.
Science news in pictures
Science news in pictures
1/18 Vegetables grow well in soil from Mars
Scientists have taken a leaf out of the script of The Martian by showing how easy it would be to grow your own veg on the Red Planet. In the hit Ridley Scott film, a stranded astronaut played by Matt Damon uses his botanical skills to cultivate potatoes. Now his success has been emulated by researchers in the Netherlands who harvested tomatoes, peas, rye, rocket, radish and cress raised on simulated Martian soil supplied by Nasa
2/18 Ancient Roman 'leisure complex' unearthed in Jerusalem
An ancient Roman estate complete with its own wine press and bathhouse has been unearthed in Jerusalem. A series of buildings dating back at least 1,600 years were discovered underneath the city's famous Schneller Orphanage which operated on the site from 1860 until the end of the Second World War, when it was turned into an army base. The ruins were discovered by archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority who were excavating the site ahead of building new flats for the city's Orthodox Jewish community
3/18 Scientists discover possible new species of deep-sea octopus nicknamed 'Casper'
Scientists believe they may have found a new species of octopus likened in appearance to Casper, the friendly cartoon ghost. Researchers with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made the discovery by chance as they searched the seabed on an unrelated mission collecting geological samples. Teams were operating an unmanned submarine on the Pacific Ocean floor at depths of more than four kilometres (two-and-a-half miles) in the Hawaiian Islands when they spotted the unusual creature
4/18 Black hole captured eating a star then vomiting it back out
Astronomers have captured a black hole eating a star and then sicking a bit of it back up for the first time ever. The scientists tracked a star about as big as our sun as it was pulled from its normal path and into that of a supermassive black hole before being eaten up. They then saw a high-speed flare get thrust out, escaping from the rim of the black hole. Scientists have seen black holes killing and swallowing stars. And the jets have been seen before.But a new study shows the first time that they have captured the hot flare that comes out just afterwards. And the flare and then swallowed star have not been linked together before
5/18 'Male and female brains' aren't real
Brains cannot be categorised into female and male, according to the first study to look at sex differences in the whole brain. Specific parts of the brain do show sex differences, but individual brains rarely have all “male” traits or all “female” traits. Some characteristics are more common in women, while some are more common in men, and some are common in both men and women, according to the study
6/18 Dog-sized horned dinosaur fossil found shows east-west evolutionary divide in North America
A British scientist has uncovered the fossil of a dog-sized horned dinosaur that roamed eastern North America up to 100 million years ago. The fragment of jaw bone provides evidence of an east-west divide in the evolution of dinosaurs on the North American continent. During the Late Cretaceous period, 66 to 100 million years ago, the land mass was split into two continents by a shallow sea. This sea, the Western Interior Seaway, ran from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean. Dinosaurs living in the western continent, called Laramidia, were similar to those found in Asia
7/18 Asteroid to skim past Earth on Halloween 2015
A huge asteroid is set to skim by Earth on Halloween, just three weeks after it was first spotted. The rock is travelling through space at 78,000 miles per hour, and will fly past the Earth at a distance of only 300,000 miles – only slightly further away than our moon, and easily close enough for Nasa to class it a potentially hazardous object. The asteroid is bigger than a skyscraper
8/18 Life on Earth appeared hundreds of millions of years earlier than previously thought
Life may have come to earth 4.1 billion years ago, hundreds of millions of years earlier than we knew. The discovery, made using graphite that was trapped in ancient crystals, could mean that life began "almost instantaneously" after the Earth was formed. The researchers behind it have described the discovery as “a potentially transformational scientific advance”. Previously, life on Earth was understood to have begun when the inner solar system was hit by a massive bombardment from space, which also formed the moon's craters
9/18 Earth could be at risk of meteor impacts
Earth could be in danger as our galaxy throws out comets that could hurtle towards us and wipe us out, scientists have warned. Scientists have previously presumed that we are in a relatively safe period for meteor impacts, which are linked with the journey of our sun and its planets, including Earth, through the Milky Way. But some orbits might be more upset than we know, and there is evidence of recent activity, which could mean that we are passing through another meteor shower. Showers of meteors periodically pass through the area where the Earth is, as gravitational disturbances upset the Oort Cloud, which is a shell of icy objects on the edge of the solar system. They happen on a 26-million year cycle, scientists have said, which coincide with mass extinctions over the last 260-million years
10/18 Genetically-engineered, extra-muscular dogs
Chinese scientists have created genetically-engineered, extra-muscular dogs, after editing the genes of the animals for the first time. The scientists create beagles that have double the amount of muscle mass by deleting a certain gene, reports the MIT Technology Review. The mutant dogs have “more muscles and are expected to have stronger running ability, which is good for hunting, police (military) applications”, Liangxue Lai, one of the researchers on the project. Now the team hope to go on to create other modified dogs, including those that are engineered to have human diseases like muscular dystrophy or Parkinson’s. Since dogs’ anatomy is similar to those of humans’, intentionally creating dogs with certain human genetic traits could allow scientists to further understand how they occur
11/18 Nasa confirms Mars water discovery
Nasa has announced that it has found evidence of flowing water on Mars. Scientists have long speculated that Recurring Slope Lineae — or dark patches — on Mars were made up of briny water but the new findings prove that those patches are caused by liquid water, which it has established by finding hydrated salts.
12/18 Bees in the Rocky Mountains are evolving shorter tongues
With warmer summers, flowers in the Rockies have become shallower and more suited to shorter-tongued bees
13/18 The majority of the UK public believe in aliens
The titular alien character from 2011's 'Paul' - a poll has found the majority of the public in Britain, Germany and the US believe that intelligent life is out there in the universe
14/18 Researchers discover 'lost world' of arctic dinosaurs
Scientists say that the new dinosaur, known as Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis, “challenges everything we thought about a dinosaur’s physiology”. Florida State University professor of biological science Greg Erickson said: “It creates this natural question. How did they survive up here?”
15/18 Scientists find exactly what human corpses smell like
New research has become the first to isolate the particular scent of human death, describing the various chemicals that are emitted by corpses in an attempt to help find them in the future. The researchers hope that the findings are the first step towards working on a synthetic smell that could train cadaver dogs to be able to more accurately find human bodies, or to eventually developing electronic devices that can look for the scent themselves.
16/18 The Syrian civil war has caused the first ever withdrawal from the 'doomsday bank'
Researchers in the Middle East have asked for seeds including those of wheat, barley and grasses, all of which are chosen because especially resistant to dry conditions. It is the first withdrawal from the bank, which was built in 2008. Those researchers would normally request the seeds from a bank in Aleppo. But that centre has been damaged by the war — while some of its functions continue, and its cold storage still works, it has been unable to provide the seeds that are needed by the rest of the Middle East, as it once did.
17/18 A team of filmmakers in the US have made the first ever scale model of the Solar System in a Nevada desert
Illustrations of the Earth and moon show the two to be quite close together, Mr Overstreet said. This is inaccurate, the reason being that these images are not to scale.
18/18 Academics claim a full bladder makes for a better liar
People lie more convincingly if they have a full bladder, according to research by academics at California State University. Iris Blandón-Gitlin's team asked 22 students to lie to a panel of interviewers. Half were given 700ml to drink before the interview and the other half, just 50ml. The students with the full bladders showed fewer signs that they were lying and their untrue answers were longer and more detailed, meaning interviewers were less able to detect that they were telling porkies. PM David Cameron has previously attested to giving speeches on a full bladder.
But there are some cells in which the telomeres don't shorten; in these cells, an enzyme called telomerase allows the telomeres to reproduce at the same length every time the cell divides. This confers cellular immortality and is present in sperm, egg and cancer cells. You can see where this is leading. If telomerase were to be activated in normal body cells, it might be possible to halt their ageing process.
But as you read Fossel's account, it becomes apparent that this isn't the story he wanted to write: it might instead have been called Why the Telomerase Revolution Hasn't Happened Yet and Who is to Blame. For Fossel it's "our assumption that change is impossible". But it might just be that, despite the highly plausible rationale for using telomerase therapy to delay ageing and prolong human lifespan, the clinical evidence that it can do this safely is not yet to hand.
Fossel is sure this will happen eventually, however (he is the founder of Telocyte, a biotech company which aims to develop telomerase as a clinical treatment), and he does try to address the skein of problems that would emerge if we could live to 500 years (his highest estimate). But he doesn't address the starkest problem of all: there would be two kinds of human being. I leave you to guess the likely consequence.
At the moment, geneticists the world over are wrestling with the ethical implications of gene editing. The initial goal of this is to correct simple genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis that involve just a single mutation. I am in favour, but the objectors stress the fact that a single gene change would be passed on forever in the germline. How much greater is the challenge of changing the human lifespan?
Fossel dismisses the common objection first raised by Swift in Gulliver's Travels: the Long-lived Humans would be miserable ancients stuck forever on the same plateau of decrepitude. In Fossel's vision we'll still be fit and vital through most of this span (he doesn't mention whether women's fertile years are likely to be increased by telomerase). But irrespective of the biological, ethical, demographic and economic issues involved in increasing the human lifespan, there are the questions raised by the prospect of any kind of greatly extended life, questions starkly addressed in neuroscientist David Eagleman's themed short-story collection Sum.
In Fossel's gerontological utopia, many more people would live to see the ruin of their hopes in an utterly alien world and the premature loss of children (of which there might be very many). Would anyone really want to live in Fossel's world? If so, I think they should be issued with a copy of Sum before starting the treatment.
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