Unlocking The Aging Secrets Of Lazarus Long

What makes some people so long-lived?  In the classic science fiction story Methuselah’s Children, Robert A. Heinlein postulated that extreme longevity could be achieved by genetics.  Encourage long-lived families to mate with each other, and in a few generations you would produce the ageless Lazarus Long, who lived well past the age of 200.

Now researchers, too, are looking at the genetics of longevity.  Recently maps of the genomes of two 114-year-olds — 114 years! — were published, and scientists are examining the data, trying to figure out what has made the two so amazingly long-lived.  So far, the answer is:  who knows?  The supercentenarians don’t seem to have different genetic structures, or genes that perform different functions.  Yet, somehow, they have lived far longer than the average person.

Obviously, there is an environmental component of extreme age.  If you live in a war zone, or a disease-ridden area, you are less likely to live a long life. As time passes, however, genetics plays an increasingly significant role.  The super-old don’t experience dementia.  They don’t have problems with cardiovascular disease, or Parkinson’s disease.  They’ve managed to avoid other diseases and conditions that routinely fell individuals who make it past 80, too.  But what is it that they have that others don’t?

Figuring out whether there is a genetic key that allows people to live longer is likely to be a focus of medical research in the future.  If drug companies will spend billions developing allergy medication and sexual performance drugs, what would they spend to discover a drug that approximates the effect of special genetic conditions of supercentenarians and allows humans with “average” genes to live super-long lives?

In the meantime, the rest of us will just hope that we inherited the genetic secrets of our most long-lived ancestor.

We Are All Africans (With Some Neanderthal Thrown In)

The BBC website has a fascinating article on a scientific study of human ancestry that strongly supports the notion that all humans come from Africa — and that at some point in the past there was some interbreeding between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals.  The evidence of interbreeding is found in many of us, because humans of Eurasian stock carry a small percentage of Neanderthal genes.

A Neanderthal skull

The conclusions are the result of a four-year study, in which numerous universities from around the world participated, that sought to sequence Neanderthal genomes.  The project suggests that a hardy band of humans left Africa between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago, did some limited interbreeding with Neanderthals, and then spread across the globe, eventually reaching and populating every continent.  The fact of interbreeding should not be surprising, because the fossil record indicates that humans and Neanderthals lived together in Europe for some 10,000 years, before Neanderthals died out.

Say Hello To “Inuk”

An artist's depiction of "Inuk"

A study of 4,000-year-old remains has allowed scientists to sequence the genome of an individual trapped in the permafrost of Greenland.  From the remains and the genome sequencing, scientists have been able to determine that the man — called “Inuk,” which means “human” in the language of Greenland natives — likely was prone to baldness, had “shovel-shaped” front teeth, and had “dry earwax.”  Other than that, he undoubtedly would have been quite the stud at his tribe’s seal-slaughter festival.

What is interesting about this discovery is not that scientists have been able to make such determinations from 4,000-year-old remains, but rather that at the same time “Inuk” was noshing on seal blubber and huddled in a small dark tent, freezing and suffering through the endless winter nights, the Egyptian civilization was flowering thousands of miles away.  At about the same time Inuk met his maker in the Greenland permafrost, Cheops was erecting the Great Pyramid that continues to astonish modern tourists, and his contemporaries were establishing the literature and culture that marked one of the high points of Egyptian civilization.

What made humans develop relatively advanced civilizations in some areas, while in others they continued to live in primitive tribal conditions?  Of such questions is science made.