Immortality has long been heeded as the stuff of fiction. As a trait only possessed by Gods and spirits. But the mark of engineering is the ability to turn science fiction into reality. New leads in immortality research have shown that the fountain of youth may be closer than many of us believe. Implementing these ideas place estimates at extending human life to around a thousand years.
To understand this research, it is first important to understand what causes aging. One of the most well-known causes is telomere shortening. The genes that compose all living organisms are twisted around double-stranded molecules of DNA called chromosomes, and at the ends of these chromosomes are telomeres. Telomeres aid in the division of chromosomes, but every time a chromosome divides, the telomere gets shorter until it becomes too short and the cell can no longer divide. As these chromosomes die, and cells can no longer replicate, old or damaged cells cannot be replaced. Thus, telomere ranges for newborns is around 8,000 base pairs, while elderly people have only around 1,500 base pairs.
Telomere length is just one factor that contributes to aging, though. Two other contributing factors are oxidative stress and glycation. Oxidants, or reactive substances containing oxygen, are damaging to DNA, proteins, and fats. The higher our chronological age, the more exposure we have to these oxidants, and thus the more damage our body suffers. Glycation, similar to oxidative stress, renders our DNA, proteins, and lipids useless when glucose, the main sugar our body uses for energy, binds with either of these. As we grow older, the problem worsens, resulting in body tissue malfunctions.
Given what we know about aging and the causes of death, research has been directed towards counteracting these problems. One of the most notable studies on the front of immortality comes from the University of Nottingham, where researchers have studied the ability of flatworms to overcome aging. Dr. Aziz Aboobaker from the school's Biology Department notes that "Asexual planarian worms demonstrate the potential to maintain telomere length during regeneration." The University specifically studied two types of these worms: those that reproduce sexually and those that reproduce asexually. Regardless of species, both were able to continue living by the regeneration of muscles, skin, guts, and even brains.
Beyond the idea that telomeres can prevent aging--as these flatworms demonstrate--we need a solution to this problem. The 2009 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine answered this by bringing attention to telomerase, an enzyme that can maintain the activity of telomeres.
This research only addresses one part of aging, however. What about oxidative stress and glycation? In one study, worms were exposed to two substances that neutralized oxidants. This enabled the worms' lifespan to increase by an astounding average of 44 percent. Life Extension Magazine proposes that cloning cells, though controversial, resets the telomere "clock" within a cell, essentially allowing rebirth of cells. In doing so, cells could produce over and over again, and glycation would no longer be an issue.
Yet popular culture always asks the inevitable question: even if we have the ability to make the human race immortal, does that mean we should? Many novels and movies approach this theme, yet none delve into the idea that an entire race--nearly eight billion people--would have this incredible power at their fingertips. What would come of our resources? Or, more notably, what would become of our species as a whole? Given the life we have here on Earth, most humans singular goal is to live a complete, fulfilling life. Would we still be driven to do so if we knew we had forever? Biological and engineering advancements, astounding as they are, must always beg this question and demand an answer.