Aging like worms

A hotbed of research exists around aging in the world of molecular biology. Researchers focusing on cancer, fertility and general mortality look at everything from individual cells to sea urchins, trying to understand how aging works. Princeton MOL professor Colleen Murphy is no exception.

In an article published yesterday in Cell, Murphy and colleagues found aging and fertility connections between the worm C. elegans and humans. That’s right: women age like worms.

Well, to be more specific, reproductive aging occurs far before other aging in both female humans and C. elegans. And in both species, this decrease in fertility is due to a decrease in the quality, not quantity, of their eggs.

Murphy found that the protein TGF-beta (transforming growth factor beta), which is also found in humans, causes eggs to degrade in C. elegans.

For those female students planning to have both a career and families, this may be good news. Murphy foresees further research on C. elegans leading to fertility treatments:

“The dream would be that you could give a woman in her early 30s a supplement or a drug to keep her oocytes healthy as long as possible,” she said. “We have treatments now that extend life span, but nothing extends our reproductive span,” she told the New York Times.

However, don’t get too excited yet. Murphy also looked at mutant worms with low TGF-beta levels. Reproduction in these worms did continue into old age, but there was an unforeseen consequence — death. Worms were still reproducing at 13 days — which is old for an organism that lives 2-3 weeks — but their bodies were no longer healthy enough to lay the fertilized eggs.

“It’s like an 80-year-old woman trying to have a baby,” Murphy said in a press release.