In which I get funded: The Comparative Biogerontology Initiative

I’m on a team that just got awarded a Keck Futures Initiative grant. This is the fruit of the NAKFI conference we attended last year on “The Future of Human Healthspan.” It was an unusual conference: instead of giving individual talks, the participants were split up into “task groups” that were each assigned a different question related to the biology of aging. At the end of the conference, each group gave a presentation. (The proceedings are available in overpriced booklet form here or as free HTML here).

Our group started off with one subject (stochasticity of gene expression) but took a sharp left turn and ended up thinking more broadly. We ended up focusing on what evolutionary biology might teach us about aging.

Within groups of species that share a given body plan (e.g., bats, birds, dogs, or primates), there is significant variation in maximum life expectancy, and we believe this variation is genetically determined. In other words, natural selection has performed dozens of parallel “experiments” in which more or less similarly constructed organisms end up with different lifespans, based on variations in a range of factors (some known or long-suspected, like antioxidant enzymes, and others as yet undetermined). Some of these factors may be unique to specific body plans, whereas others might be universal. The challenge we set ourselves was ambitious: How can we use the “data set” (i.e., variation in lifespan among related organisms) to identify novel determinants of longevity? Thus was born the Comparative Biogerontology Initiative.

We soon realized that we’d need a great deal of expertise, not only from within biogerontology but also from other fields, some with which we often have dealings (biostatistics, computational biology) and others with which we have almost no interaction in our daily professional lives (veterinary medicine, pathology, histology, comparative physiology). Identifying the relevant experts is a profound challenge in itself: How does one identify expertise in a field in which one has none? Hence a lot of what we’re going to be doing at first is figuring out who our collaborators will be — leading to the contorted mission statement:

These researchers will hold two meetings with senior scholars to develop a plan to test hypotheses about biological factors that control lifespan and healthspan, and compare tissues from multiple species of animals. The scholars are pathologists, comparative physiologists, methodologists, statisticians, and experts in the biology of aging.

“Hold…meetings…to develop a plan to test hypotheses”…no doubt, this will inflame the sensibilities of those who advocate a more direct frontal assault on the problem of aging; indeed, if this were all we were planning to do, they would have a point. We know a lot about aging and it makes sense to move forward aggressively where knowledge is already extensive — but those efforts are being undertaken already, and will continue. All of us are keeping our day jobs.

The CBI was conceived not as a replacement for more direct studies of more relevant models (like humans), but as a complement: by carefully examining aging in understudied organisms, and by systematically identifying the factors that contribute to their differential longevities, our hope is to discover entirely new determinants of aging and lifespan. By bringing in expertise from around the scientific world, including disciplines that don’t usually overlap with biogerontology, our hope is to break new ground in the biology of lifespan (and, if you like, to open new fronts in the battle against aging). In the process, we’ll learn more about the evolutionarily conserved bases of aging throughout the animal kingdom, identify new biomarkers of aging, and pose enough new questions to keep the next generation of biogerontologists busy for years to come.

The other members of the team are, dare I say it, eminences grises of biogerontology — some of whose work and thoughts (e.g., Steve Austad and Richard Miller) we’ve discussed here in the past (and one of whom is my current boss, Judy Campisi). I’m personally thrilled for a chance to work with and learn from them.

And who knows? After we hold our meetings to develop a plan to test a hypothesis, we might actually test one, and then I can blog about it here. Watch this space for further developments.



  1. Wow, that is terrific, Chris! I personally don’t think that comparative, evolutionary biogerontology will give us real, killer clues about a robust healthy lifespan extension technology, but I hope I am utterly wrong. (I would bet on a more direct, human based approach, like systemic regenerative medicine.) I am sorry to say that, as I will be unemployed soon and it would be just wonderful to join such an initiative as a scientist.
    In the meantime I figured out the reason why I decided that the evolutionary approach on human aging and life extension is just not for me: the cause is Section I. The Comparative Biology of Senescence in the book Longevity, Senescence, and the Genome by Caleb Finch.

  2. Thanks, Attila. I understand your reservations about the approach; I suppose that I maintain the belief that we haven’t yet identified all the sources of aging and that, therefore, systematic analysis across species will help us complete the picture.

    Ironically, Caleb Finch is on the team (see the press release). I’m going to have to re-read that chapter of his book 🙂

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