At The Scientist, a long article describes possible “fixes” to the problem of human aging:
In the absence of planned form and designed function, what we have is a living machine that appears well thought out, but which fails when operated beyond its biological warranty period. Some anatomic fixes could make a difference in aging populations: … Anyone who understands how time takes its toll on the body and mind, however, will recognize that designing a human body built to last requires far more substantive changes than meddling with simple anatomy.
So we’ve asked our experts to fiddle with physiology and tinker with the inner mechanics of life at its most basic biologic level. Although it is inevitable, for now, that all systems in the body experience some level of functional decline with the passage of time, not all components of the body degrade at the same rate. Furthermore, some structures are more vulnerable than others.
The authors of the article interviewed a number of experts in several aspects of the biology of aging (skewed a little heavily toward neuroscientists), and then summarized their speculations on the prospects for slowing or preventing aging via engineered interventions in a wide variety of molecular phenomena, cell types and organ systems.
Some of the ideas are quite consistent with cutting-edge thinking in biogerontology (e.g., manipulating autophagy and protein degradation to help clear damaged macromolecules more efficiently, or uncoupling olfaction from downstream signals in order to simulate the effects of calorie restriction) whereas others are kind of eh (e.g., “Stronger, more resilient enamel might stave off [tooth] decay,” but if that fails let’s install a third row of teeth to come in at middle age, since after all those four wisdom teeth aren’t enough of a pain in the ass).
For each proposed fix, there’s a clear statement of the problem being addressed, a potential solution or two, and then a paragraph about possible complications and tradeoffs that might result. Overall, I think the piece is a very thoughtful lay-level treatment of the provocative idea that we might someday make germ-line modifications to human beings (as opposed to treating people with pharmaceuticals or medical procedures, either prophylactically or remedially) in order to combat age-related decline and mortality.
The reader commentary is worth checking out as well, not because it’s particularly informative but because it distills some of the opposition that confront life-extension-motivated biogerontologists — even those who aren’t committed to making germ-line modifications to the human organism, as most of the arguments here are directed against extending the lifespan, rather than the means by which this extension might be achieved.
Among the commenters are the folks who don’t see the point in living longer (then don’t); those who either profoundly misunderstand evolutionary theory or idolize the concept of species-level evolution as a moral good; the infamous “think of the children” argument; and — of course — invocations of God, who apparently wants us all to die so that we can join Him and Jebus up in Heaven. If one happens to be a pro-life-extension biogerontologist, their rants provide a refreshing bit of evidence that you’re on the right side.
(Hat tip to reader Okie of Eternal Oki for the link to the article)