Hitting pause button on ageing
Could the African turquoise killifish hold the answer to how to stop ageing in humans? That’s the hope of researchers who have studied the fish and found the mechanism that allows it to press pause on its development. The unique peculiarity is thought to have evolved in response to extreme changes in the environment — such as droughts. Known as diapause, the phenomenon allows the fish to put its development on hold for months, sometimes years, until conditions recover.
“Seasonal or environmental pressures are sometimes best dealt with by putting growth and reproduction on hold,” Professor Anne Brunet, co-author of the research from Stanford University in California, writes in Science. “Many animals have evolved mechanisms for reversibly arresting development at discrete developmental stages, so that the arrested embryo or larva can wait for more favourable conditions in which to resume development, grow, and reproduce.”
Having studied diapause in killifish embryos, Brunet and her team discovered the process involves a marked reduction in cell proliferation and organ development, and a slowing down of the metabolism. The Stanford researchers think it may be possible to apply these methods to humans. “One can hypothesise that turning on a diapause-like state — or tapping into the molecular machinery of diapause — in some adult tissues or cells could help preserve them long-term,” said Brunet.
But could this research really lead the way to the ultimate Holy Grail — to suspend the ageing process in humans? While keen to add that any answer at the moment is speculative, Brunet said: “We think it’s interesting from a fundamental point of view to understand how the accumulation of the damage due to the passage of time can be stopped or suspended. Diapause offers us a way to understand this.” In trials involving roundworms, the process proved successful: their larvae underwent diapause which, in turn, led to an extension of lifespan. “These findings might provide insight into the mysteries of ageing and longevity,” said Brunet.
ABOVE Turquoise killifish Nothobranchius furzeri