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Lowly Worm Giving Scientists Clues to Human Aging - 2002-10-24

Scientists trying to find out how humans age are studying a lowly roundworm known as C. elegens. It turns out the roundworm's muscles age just like those of humans. And researchers have found an aging enzyme in C. elegens that may affect humans.

C. elegens burst on to the scene as a good model for studying human biology a few years ago when scientists announced they had mapped the genetic blueprint of the tiny nematode. Then, this year, scientists involved in the effort were awarded the Nobel Prize.

Monica Driscoll, a professor of molecular biology and biochemistry at Rutgers University in New Jersey, says C. elegens is an ideal research tool because every worm is identical and easy to manipulate genetically, and, like humans, changes to the worm's genes are permanent. For this reason, Professor Driscoll says C. elegens is a popular animal model for studying aging.

"In highers organisms, it is always a little more complicated," she said. "There are always more bells and whistles, but the basic plan is there. And once you know what to look for in higher organisms then your experiments are that much easier."

She and her colleagues first studied the worm's nerve cells as the source of its age-related deterioration. But she says investigators found very little nerve cell damage to explain C. elegens' age-related decline.

Researchers then hit upon a condition of middle age called sarcopenia, which is marked by a loss of muscle mass. "What really excited us on many levels is the aging of the C. elegens muscle looked very similar to what has been described for the aging of human muscle," she said. "Now, there are clearly differences. But the great thing about the worm is we identified and we characterized in this paper one gene that contributes to the age-related decline of muscle function in worms."

The researchers published their findings in the journal Nature.

The investigators say nematodes lacking an enzyme produced by a mutated verion of the gene live longer.

Lead researcher Driscoll says investigators plan to screen the 19,000 or more genes of C. elegens, looking for a handful of genes that are responsible for aging.

"And when we have them in our hands, we just, you know, we tell our colleagues who are human gerontologists or mammalian aging biologists, 'Look at these,'" she said.

Researchers say they would ultimately like to use the genetic information gleaned from C. elegens to adjust the chemistry of the human body to extend the period of good health in old alge.