Saturday, June 21, 2014

A Different Approach to Anti-Aging

In this fast-paced talk by Dr. Aubrey de Grey, we hear about a breathtakingly radical approach to forestalling aging, which (in a nutshell) involves moving all remaining mitochondrial genes into the nuclear DNA, so that mutations in mitochondrial DNA, per se, are rendered irrelevant. This technique of "obviation" of mitochondrial-DNA breakdown isn't a new idea (it's been around for at least 30 years). What's new is that, technologically, we're in a position to make it happen.

Most mitochondrial genes are, of course, already in the nucleus. The majority of scientists accept that mitochondria got their start as bacterial endosymbionts; a long-ago ancestor of today's alphaproteobacteria took up residency in an anaerobe. The anaerobe provided the invading bacterium with a nutrient-rich environment in which to live, while the bacterium provided oxygen-detoxification services (and a lot of adenosine triphosphate) to the host. Most likely, the invading bacterium had around 1,500 genes. Over time, ~500 redundant genes were lost and the remaining 1,000 or so migrated to the host cell's nuclear DNA (a much safer environment for DNA than the mitochondrion), leading to the present-day situation where (human) mitochondria have an extremely small circular chromosome encoding just 13 proteins. But we know mitochondria actually contain around 1,000 different proteins, most of which are encoded in nuclear genes.

The majority of mitochondrial genes (in the nucleus) encode proteins that are made in cyotplasm and imported into the mitochondrion. For import, proteins must be in an unfolded state. Some proteins (the most hydrophobic ones) are actually made on the surface of the mitochondrion and slurped into the interior of the mitochondrion as they're being made. Folding of the proteins then takes place inside the organelle.

Can the remaining 13 mitochondrial protein genes be moved to the nucleus? If we succeed in doing that, will cells live longer? What technical obstacles remain? What progress has been made? These and other questions are addressed in Aubrey de Grey's talk, which is well worth a listen.