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Unlocking the secrets of Methuselah?

Some organisms can live for thousands of years, while we humans may achieve at the most 100-120 years. Researchers are delving into the cells of plants and humans to explore what it is that makes the difference.

2014.11.19 | Janne Hansen

The strange plant Welwitschia mirabilis, which grows in the deserts of Namibia, is a veritable Methuselah with leaves that are 2-3 meters long. Now, researchers from Aarhus University will use the long-lived plant as a model for aging in humans. Photo: Janne Hansen.

Some plants can live for thousands of years. They have experienced and survived fires, frosts or droughts. They have been visited, lived in and gnawed on, chopped and drilled by generations of mammals, reptiles, birds, insects and fungi without turning up their toes. In contrast, we humans – and all other mammals – have to make do with a limited lifespan. What makes the difference? Why can’t we live for as long as a tree? This is what researchers from Aarhus University will look into. They will use plants as models for studying aging in humans.

- We have an idea that the difference between man and the almost immortal plants can be found in the part of the cell where energy metabolism occurs, which is in the mitochondria, explains Associate Professor Ian Max Møller from the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics.

Aging and age-related diseases in humans are closely related to an accumulation of changes in DNA and protein in the cellular power plants – the mitochondria. The same is apparently not the case for plants. They can live extremely long and do not succumb to age-related diseases. Researchers will therefore delve into the mitochondria from selected plant species and humans to see if they can unlock the secret for the why and how some cells age and others don’t.

Plants and humans are compared

In order to track down what the specific differences may be, the researchers will compare mitochondria from young and old plants, from ordinary people in different age groups and from people with a defective gene that causes them to age much faster than other people.

Some of the plant cells in the study come from a plant that is only found in the desert in Namibia. It looks like a very large limp lettuce and can be as much as two thousand years old. This is the plant Welwitschia mirabilis, which is distantly related to conifers. The researchers will investigate whether they can get useful information by comparing the mitochondria from the oldest parts of the plant with mitochondria from the youngest parts of the plant. The project also includes different ages of poplar and clones of ryegrass.

There are a number of parameters that may affect the aging so the researchers will study cell growth and division, different aspects and phases of DNA production in mitochondria, including the number of mutations, and various aspects of oxidation, including the amount of antioxidants.

- Our aim is to identify one or more parameters that distinguish the mitochondria in old plant cells from those in old human cells. It will help to give us better insight into the mechanisms that contribute to our aging and therefore give us a greater understanding of the mysteries of aging, says Ian Max Møller.

The two-year project has a budget of 2.4 million Danish kroner, of which 2.15 million has been granted by the Danish Council for Independent Research | Natural Sciences.


For further Information

Associate Professor Ian Max Møller
Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics
Aarhus University, Denmark
ian.max.moller@mbg.au.dk +45 2087 2100

Grant