Fountain of Youth

By Steven Pritchett

Could genetic studies help us live longer? 

For thousands of years, humans have sought to discover the fountain of youth. From Ponce De Leon seeking the mythical fountain of Native American lore, to 20th century scientists racing to eradicate epidemics, humanity has sought to find, or manufacture, a way to extend our natural lifetimes. But new studies from scientists and professors suggest the answer – the roundworm Caenorhabditis (C.) elegans – may have been under our feet all along.   

C. elegans are tiny, with short lifespans. Neither of these traits are surprising for roundworms. But what is astonishing is that C. elegans share much of its genetic code with humans. This makes the C. elegan a phenomenal genetic and genomic tool for anti-aging interventions. 

For example, in South Korea a group of researchers found a certain enzyme in C.elegans, VRK-1, that directly increases the longevity of the worms. These researchers genetically engineered two lines of roundworms to generate more VRK-1 and two lines of roundworms to generate less VRK-1. The researchers noticed that the roundworms that produced more than the regular level of VRK-1 tended to live longer than the average worm, while those who produced less than the average amount of VRK-1 had shorter lives. The initial conclusion? VRK-1, an enzyme naturally produced by C. elegans and humans, may have a direct correlation with our lifespans. 

In addition, an article from MDI Biological Laboratory breaks down Dr. Jarod Rolins’ immense breakthrough with C. elegans. In Dr. Rolins’ testing, which involved his team altering two signaling pathways inside the worms’ cells (both linked to aging), the lifespan of C. elegans increased by as much as 500%! To put this result into perspective, an ordinary C. elegans worm lives about 3-4 weeks; Rolins and his team were able to keep the worms alive for almost half a year.  

In sum, C. elegans, the roundworm with a life expectancy of a carton of milk, presents exciting possibilities for scientists still searching for the elusive fountain of youth. Let’s hope they find it. By studying the genetic code of C. elegans, scientists may develop a way to engineer longer lives for humans. Based on the studies referenced above, I’d say this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship between humans and the C. elegans.  

On the other hand, there is research which suggests genetics (and genetic engineering) may not be the sole source of the fountain. A report from describes how twin studies suggest that genetics only account for “approximately 20 to 30%” of an individual's chance of surviving to age 85.” 

We can’t control whether scientists will discover a C. elegans-sourced pill or injection to prolong our lives. But what we can do is make lifestyle choices that provide the same result. Particularly, not smoking (or vaping), curbing alcohol consumption, maintaining a healthy diet, and exercising (the latter being the most crucial…column on ‘The Knees Over Toes Guy’ coming soon!). But I digress, without a doubt all of these habits play an irrefutable role in not only how long one lives, but how well one ages.  

We should all pay close attention to the recent breakthroughs scientists have discovered though the C. elegans roundworm (and future breakthroughs to come) – but let’s also pay close attention to the breakthroughs that we can make within ourselves. One way or another, the fountain of youth is nigh.