A new study by scientists from the Arizona State University and the Texas A&M University may have made a pivotal discovery about our potential “cellular immortality” (1). In their study, plant DNA is shown to possibly slow down human aging via the telomerase component from plants.
Co-author of the study and professor of biochemistry at Arizona State University, Dr. Julian Chen said that “This is the first time that we have identified the detailed structure of the telomerase component from plants,”
The study was published on November 18, 2019, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science Journal (PNAS).
The reason this is significant is that telomerase is an enzyme that’s responsible for the creation of telomeres. And telomeres are the compound structures that are located at the tips of chromosomes and protect our cells from aging during their multiplication.
“So in terms of fundamental research, this is a really big breakthrough because now finally we have a way to study telomerase in plants and to understand how different or similar they are from animals,” Dr. Chen also said.
Of course, we shouldn’t get our hopes up as this is still very basic research and we’re still very far from any practical testing or applications.
Other scientists have also joined in on the discussion. 2009 Nobel Prize winner in Physiology and Medicine Elizabeth Blackburn who actually discovered telomeres and telomerase together with Carol Greider and Jack Szostak had this to say:
“Excitingly, this paper reports how plants fill in the missing links of telomerase RNA’s eventful evolutionary history … from our simplest forebears. This fundamental new understanding may pave the way to new routes to optimizing telomere maintenance for human health.”
Could this hold the key to our future immortality?
Not quite. Telomeres don’t make our cells immune to aging they just slow it down. Most cells in our bodies divide between 50 and 70 times before they are eventually worn out and die. With telomeres acting like a protective cap on top of every cell, however, it is able to slow down the breaking of cells during multiplication, leaving DNA undamaged.
The problem is that most cells in our bodies have very low levels of telomerase which means that these “telomeres caps” are not as effective and durable. If thanks to studies like this one, we manage to increase our levels of telomerase and strengthen the protection that telomeres give to our cells, we may one day manage to significantly prolong the human lifespan.
It will take time, however, since telomerase has proven to be very complicated to work with, especially because they differ a lot from one species to another.
“This enzyme action is similar from the simplest organisms to humans,” says Dr. Blackburn. “Yet, the telomerase RNA part of telomerase has long presented a mystery because it is surprisingly different between different evolutionary branches of life.”
Additionally, while it seems clear that telomeres are vital for the slower aging of cells it’s unclear as to what other factors play a role in it. As Dr. Chen adds: “If cells have telomerase, they will live longer, but these cells are just part of your body. Whether it can delay the entire individual’s aging or increase their life span, that’s a different story.”
So, while this study may be just another small step toward reaping actual health benefits, it’s still likely a very key step to that end.