A new and simple weapon in the ongoing fight against aging has been identified: antibiotics.
In a new report in the journal Nature, a team of researchers led by Johan Auwerx, head of EPFL's Laboratory of Integrative and Systemic Physiology, wrote of a mechanism in mice that plays a determining role in longevity. By disrupting this mechanism using simple antibiotics in a population of roundworms, they were able to extend lifespan by 60 percent.
The researchers first analyzed mice genomes as they relate to longevity and found a group of three genes situated on chromosome number two that previously had not been linked to aging. But the researchers found that a 50 percent reduction in the expression of these genes -- and therefore a reduction in the proteins they code for -- increased a mouse life span by about 250 days.
The researchers then reproduced the protein variations in a species of roundworms. "By reducing the production of these proteins during the worms' growth phase, we significantly increased their longevity," Auwerx said in a press release.
The average life span of a worm manipulated in this way jumped from 19 to more than 30 days, a rise of 60 percent. The scientists then conducted tests to isolate the common property and determined that the presence of mitochondrial ribosomal proteins (MRPs) is inversely proportional to longevity.
The researchers concluded that a lack of MRP at certain key moments in development created a specific stress reaction known as an "unfolded protein response" within the mitochondria -- or within the energy factory of the cell. "The strength of this response was found to be directly proportional to the life span," said Auwerx in a press release.
What's more, the effect will happen without researchers genetically manipulating the worms. "Exposure to certain readily available drugs inhibits ribosomal function and thus causes the desired reaction," said Auwerx in a press release. In other words, mitochondria are sensitive to certain antibiotics, and the drugs can be used to prolong life.
If the above wasn't enough, researchers found that worms given antibiotics didn't just live longer, but that they also moved twice as much as the other worms.
"This research gives us hope not only for increasing longevity, but also for lengthening the period of adult vitality, and doing this with simple drugs such as antibiotics," said Auwerx in a press release.
Researchers warn, though, that more studies are needed to confirm that the effects of aging could be slowed down in mammals with the help of antibiotics.