Can I Live to
If you don't, your children may, thanks to scientists
looking for longevity genes. But who will want to live that
Walking and talking get more difficult for my mother every
day, and when I phoned to tell her the headline of this story, there
was a long pause before she found the words to reply: "I don't
At 75, she is fighting one of the innumerable syndromes that
elderly flesh is heir to. For reasons that no neurologist can
explain, many of her brain cells are filling with debris called Lewy
bodies. Her symptoms resemble those of Alzheimer's, and like
Alzheimer's, the condition is sometimes genetic. Do we have to grow
old so sadly? Before we go, do we have to lose most of the natural
gifts that make life worth living? We are the first people in human
history for whom this is a primary concern. For every generation
before ours, the first concerns were Can I grow old? Will my baby
reach a ripe old age? Please let us grow older! Now the average life
expectancy in the U.S. has advanced from 47 in 1900 to better than
76 in 1999. During the next century, new biological discoveries
should ensure that even more of us will live to see old age and will
encourage us to dream, in wild or wistful moments, that we might not
have to grow old at all.
Whenever I want to feel optimistic, I think about work in
progress in the laboratory of Seymour Benzer of the California
Institute of Technology. Benzer made the first detailed map of a
gene's interior, and he and his student Ronald Konopka discovered
the first so-called clock gene, which ticks away inside virtually
every living cell, helping tell our bodies where we are in the daily
sweep from morning to night. Now, at 77, Benzer is searching through
our genes for a sort of clock of clocks that tells us where we are
in the sweep from the cradle to the grave and decides how fast we
age. Recently he discovered a mutant fruit fly that lives more than
100 days, about one-third longer than the rest of the madding crowd
in a fly bottle. What makes the difference is a single gene, which
Benzer calls Methuselah.
If one gene can do that much for flies (or worms or
mice--genetic engineering has created a growing zoo of Methuselahs),
then what can our genes do for us? Maybe there really is a clock of
clocks, and maybe, just maybe, 21st century biologists will figure
out how to twiddle and reset the hands. They might concoct
Methuselah pills or inject Methuselah genes into fertilized eggs and
fool our mortal bodies into believing that we are forever young.
"Perhaps," Benzer muses, "aging can be better described not as a
clock but as a scenario, which we can hope to edit." If we died in
old age at the same rate we die between ages 10 and 15, then most of
us in the U.S. would live 1,200 years. We would outdo the first
Methuselah, whose years were 969. MORE>>
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