What worms can teach us from aging. An interview with Olivia Casanueva

Olivia Casanueva. Group Leader at the epigenetics group at the Babraham Institute.
Olivia Casanueva. Group Leader at the epigenetics group at the Babraham Institute.

Olivia Casanueva is a successful woman in science. Not long ago she got an ERC Grant to support her research in epigenetics and its relationship to aging and life expectancy. As an expert in the topic with a solid trayectory in research and an even better ability to make complex ideas understandable to everyone, we took advantage of her openness to ask her a few questions on her line of research, and our new favorite topic: AGING.

Let’s start with a general question. In simple words, can you explain to us what is it you investigate?

I try to investigate how the information that comes in the DNA “instruction manual” gets to be translated into forms, shapes, in other words traits. Even if we do have a very defined instruction manual encoded in our DNA, this information is only a blueprint, because it is altered by the environment, lifestyle and even random unpredictable events. This is why you can distinguish identical twins, who can be quite different, actually.

You have lots of experience in genetics research, what exactly drove you to ageing research?  

Until recently people thought that ageing was just natural decline but then it was discovered that genes influence life expectancy. This was huge because it meant that the process of ageing could be intervened upon and potentially slowed down. But genes are only part of the equation, even identical twins are high discordant when it comes to life expectancy. And I find that variability really interesting. On one hand, there seems to be a certain stereotypical decline as we age, that is, we wrinkle before our vision blurs and so forth, so the course of events follows a certain pattern, but then different people age at different rates and there are lots of particulars that matter to each individual. And I think this is the way medicine is evolving, we now like to think of individuals and personalized medicine and so forth, so it is important to do basic research to understand what makes us different.

You use C. elegans for your research, what can we learn from a little worm?

Worms are great. Simple, beautiful to watch under a microscope. They live for a short time and are genetically identical, so in the lab, we can have thousands of “identical twins” and analyse how variable they are despite having the same DNA blueprint. People used to be annoyed with the variability, and used to discard it as “noise” but actually, there is a lot of interesting information hidden in that variability, that can inform us about the way the process of ageing works, for example.

Why is nutrition, especially in early life, so important for ageing?

Infact, nutrition is not only important early in life, but also how well the mother was fed has important long term consequences. There is data acquired from Second World War registries, more specifically, “the dutch famine” mothers were starved and their kids were followed over time and found to suffer from various health issues later on. We don’t understand how it happens but early events seem to prime the physiology of organisms.

What does dietary restriction (DR) mean exactly?

Dietary restriction is food restriction without malnutrition. It is a very effective way to extend lifespan of many animals.

What about us, humans. Does dietary restriction imply we could live forever if we barely ate? 

We don’t really know whether this is the case in humans. But even if it were, it is not clear whether this is a treatment that could be effectively used.  We need to understand what aspects of metabolism and physiology are improved by DR. Then we could design targeted solutions that did not imply eating very little food.

Do you think is it possible to extend life without limits?

Probably not, we have little cells that renew organs and they can only divide well a certain many times after that, they start to falter, so tissues cannot be well regenerated and in consequence can lead to cancer and other diseases. Neuronal tissues were thought to not be regenerated and now people think that they are. But old cells accumulate damage, the way neuronal cells clear protein debris fails and they can accumulate very toxic products that cause neurodegeneration. A woman has lived to 122 and people seem to think that is the ultimate limit of human lifespan.

What do you think is the most important goal of ageing research?

Ultimately, there is a social call to make humans age as healthily as possibly and to decrease human pain and suffering. Of course, this is a great goal. I also think that from a more fundamental angle, ageing commences after animals reproduce and the idea that the driving biological force, natural selection, only cares about the success of the species, that is, that it reproduces generation after generation. So this force of selection makes every effort to render organisms robust up to that point. Then there is decay. The trade-off between survival and reproduction is the core of the evolutionary theory of ageing but we don’t understand well how it works.

For which diseases could be ageing research beneficial?

Most of them. Some people don’t see ageing and diseases as different things. A longer life is simply extending the time when we are free of life threatening diseases. But ageing is the highest risk factor for certain diseases such as cancer and neurodegeneration, so these are key.

I hope you have found the interview with Olivia as interesting as I did. I want to thank Olivia for kindly answering our questions. If however, you have more questions about her research or on the topic, I have two recommendations for you: 1) that you follow Olivia on Twitter and/or 2) that you tell us which questions you would have liked to ask her in the comments section. After reading this, I am sure you think better of worms, I know I do 😉