“What if Humans were Designed to Last?”

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)


  1. Yeah, the opposing comments were incredibly stupid, perhaps even more so than usual. Quite disconcerting though that there appeared to be scientists among those, and worst of all, Hayflick himself in his piece made some non-sensical must-not-fiddle-with-divine evolution argument.

  2. Actually, one of the first comments raised some interesting points. What if the ability to live a vastly extended and youthful life was the province of the wealthy?

    Of course, I don’t know that this is a “what if” given current life expectancies and access to health care.

    I do think limited access raises profound ethical issues. That being said, this is incredibly interesting and promising research. We just have to realize there are a host of ethical obligations that would come along with the new technology.

  3. subjecting the aged to limited access seems cruel, but how many times have accidents happened by people thinking they are capable, when clearly they are not. is it a matter of health risks to different age groups, and not just the aged?

  4. I was looking for a search function here, so maybe you’re quite familiar with it, but check out Aubrey de Grey. He’s got a lot to say. He refers to it as science but it’s all policy. Quite interesting, and the fact that he’s a clever rhetoritician makes it spicy!

  5. Very interesting article. I think it is clear that some day we will be able to engineer human bodies for maximum life span (as well as for a number of other things). But how about the “psychic” toll on long life. Assuming that this re-engineering will be rationed, will everyone we know and love get the same treatment? If not, how many times do we want to watch friends and family die? I have a post on my blog, http://lifeextension.wordpress.com that asks the question, “do you really want to live to 200?” that talks about this issue.

  6. Very interesting post and article.

    Now, with dementias such as Alzheimer’s increasing in incidence, maybe we should focus not only on “body” lifespan but “mind” lifespan too.

  7. my one comment against them is the idea of coating the blood vessels in something that works like Teflon in order to reduce cholesterol buildup. That’s not needed.

    Regulation of Apolipoprotein B production based on the amount of LDL (bad cholesterol) present in the blood-stream would be a much better choice. Basically this gene will be suppressed, possibly by RNAi in response to climbing cholesterol levels. This protein is actually responsible for the transportation of LDL throughout the body and is essential for it’s absorption from the digestive tract. Defeciencies in this protein produce Hypobetalipoproteinemia, a condition where there exists abnormally low levels of LDL. The idea is to put a regulatory system in place to insure optimum Cholesterol levels, both good (HDL) and bad (LDL). Conversely, this gene will be suppressed in instances where there are deficiencies in fat-soluble vitamins and minerals (vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, and vitamin K) as LDL serves a vital role in their absorption.

    It would also be a good idea to reintroduce the ability to produce Vitamin C into our genome. Since cholesterol and calcification of the blood vessels actually helps (when you’re younger) to prevent scurvy, which is caused by the blood vessels being too permeable because of the lack of sufficient Vitamin C.

    In fact, many of the proposed modifications are pretty silly and dumbed down.

  8. I agree that limited access raises some ethical concerns. I don’t have a solution to offer as I think that even with universal health care this would still be an issue due to the demands and pressures on the system.

    I’m only now beginning to explore this subject matter. It is pretty fascinatign.

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