We’ve all seen it – the immortal magician trope. The thousand-year-old superhero storyline. The entertainment industry has seriously milked this idea for all it’s worth. But wouldn’t this be way cooler if immortality or living for hundreds of years was a real thing?
Well… science may have found something to give us just that.
Throughout the ages, there have been people who have lived for 100 or more years. But there have also been those who have lived for only a few months in the same time period. Lifespan comes down to your genes, the environment you’re born into, or in simple words, the overall situation of your life. Take for example an average human being, one who was set to live a perfectly normal life up to 80 or more years of age.
What if you could slow down their ageing process? What if you could give them the option to live another few years?
To even fathom such a thing we have to understand the science behind ageing to start with.
The continuation of our lives depends largely on the continuation of our cells dividing. This is because new cells replace old cells which may have died, and also allow damaged cells of ours to be consistently repaired. The idea is that the genetic material in our cells is what dictates many of the processes in our body, and keep our bodies functioning without any hiccups. It is absolutely vital that with every cell division, all the genetic material is copied into the new cell, for it to continue complete functioning.
At the ends of chromosomes (the genetic parts in our cells), there are structures called “telomeres”. These act as protective caps on the end of our DNA genetic material, which allow all of our genetic material to be copied without any being left behind. However, with every cell division, our telomeres grow shorter and shorter. This means, that all our DNA material may not be copied into new cells.
As our old cells die, and we are left behind with only new cells with incomplete DNA information, our body no longer functions with the same completeness as before. As our cell divisions become more and more pointless, we age, and our lives slow down.
Soon after, we pass away.
So here is the secret weapon scientists could use to reverse engineer the ageing process and possibly figure out how to let us live longer! So what’s the secret weapon? Telomerase.
Telomerase is basically an enzyme which slows down the shortening of telomeres by adding back the lost DNA pieces.
It uniquely holds the key to delaying or even reversing the cellular aging process. Telomerase lengthens telomeres by repeatedly synthesizing 6 building blocks of DNA and adding them onto the ends of the chromosome (telomeres). The extra pieces allow all the important information to be copied during cell division without any being lost when the telomeres shorten.
However, the activity of the telomerase enzyme is insufficient to completely restore the lost telomere pieces, nor to stop cellular aging.
If scientists could somehow tap into unlimited control over this enzyme, there is a possibility of increasing the average human lifespan drastically. This possibility opens the door to so many more questions. Would this discovery, if possible, cause too much disruption to the natural order of life? In a world where overpopulation is already causing adverse effects, is this really a discovery we should encourage?
Wherever science chooses to go with, it’s cool to know that living for longer may not just be a thing for the movies.