Longevity also inherited non-genetically, study finds

Oct. 21, 2011, 2:14 a.m.

In addition to their genes, your parent’s eating habits and lifestyle choices may also have a non-genetic effect on your lifespan, according to new research from the School of Medicine.

By blocking or modifying any of three proteins in the roundworm C. elegans, researchers were able to increase the lifespan of the roundworm and its descendants, even though its descendants did not carry the genetic modification. According to the press release, this is the first time longevity has been shown to be transferred non-genetically.

Organisms modify the way their genes are expressed without actually changing their underlying DNA sequences in a process called epigenetics. This study, however, is the first to show that these changes are not always reset between generations.

Associate professor of genetics Anne Brunet and graduate student Eric Greer conducted the study. Greer mutated the genes responsible for encoding three proteins (ASH-2, WDR-5 and SET-2), then bred the worms to ensure their offspring would not carry the same mutation.

Greer found that the descendants of these modified worms had longer lifespans than descendants from un-modified worms, indicating the mutation affected the offspring even though it was not genetically inherited. The increased lifespan lasted for up to three generations, but eventually reverted back to the normal amount of time.

“We still don’t know the exact mechanism of this epigenetic memory of longevity between generations,” said Brunet in a statement on the School of Medicine website.

“We hypothesize that when the parental generation is missing key components that normally regulate chromatin, epigenetic marks are not completely reset from one generation to the next in the germ line, thereby inducing heritable changes in gene expression. It will be very interesting to understand how this happens,” she added.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Glenn Foundation for Medical Research and a Helen Hay Whitney Postdoctoral Fellowship.

Brendan O’Byrne

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