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A humble worm helps to unlock the secrets of how cells age

A microscopic worm has helped to pave the way toward understanding some of the big questions about life and death, thanks to research by Greek scientists from the Research and Technology Institute of Crete (ITE). Their innovative study, published in Nature magazine, demonstrates for the first time how protein synthesis is related to the aging process. ITE’s Molecular Biology and Biotechnology research team (Nektarios Tavernarakis, Popi Syntihaki and Costoula Troulinaki) focused on cells, «because when cells age, they make tissues and organisms age,» explained Tavernarakis, the team’s director. «All cells form proteins during the protein synthesis phase,» he told Kathimerini. «In this process, the cell uses up a considerable proportion (up to 50 percent) of its energy. If it were possible to reduce the rate at which it creates proteins, the cell could use the remaining energy to repair damage and thus remain alive for longer.» The team experimented on Caenorhaditis elegans, a tiny worm less than a millimeter long that is little known to the general public but famous among biologists. «By intervening in the worm’s protein synthesis, we observed a significant increase in its life span – from 15 days to 20-25 days.» Might this be relevant for the far more complex human organism? «Protein synthesis and its effects on aging are more or less the same in cells in simple organisms as in human cells. Besides, Caenorhaditis elegans, like other very simple organisms, is often used in laboratory experiments,» said Tavernarakis. Protein synthesis can be reduced only to a certain point, of course, because the organism cannot function without proteins. «We have to find a way of saving energy without stopping the production of proteins,» explained the researcher. «When we drastically reduce protein synthesis, the worms die.» The discovery by the Greek scientists is expected to contribute more to an improvement in the quality of life than to any prolongation of life. «We know that old age is usually accompanied by a series of ailments which inconvenience people, such as cancers and heart disease. We believe that with the additional energy we can obtain, the human organism will be able to better stave off a number of problems.» The researchers do not claim to have discovered the elixir of youth. «Our primary goal is to understand how the process of cell aging and death works. It is the first time that the process of death has been linked to protein synthesis,» said Tavernarakis. It is not, however, the first time that the team has drawn useful conclusions from the study of worms. A couple of years ago, they managed to isolate and map two groups of genes that play a part in cell destruction and so contribute to the appearance of degenerative diseases. They have also studied the mechanisms of memory and learning. There are many causes of aging, not all of which have been discovered. And with tremendous interest in the subject as the population of the West ages, greater funding is now becoming available for research.