HAVE YOU EVER WONDERED AND ENVIED A FRIEND of yours who looks 15-20 years younger than their age?
What is their secret? How did they do it?
Well, one of the secrets could be their telomeres.
It was year 1984, Elizabeth Blackburn co-discovered an enzyme called telomerase, that maintains and replenishes the telomere. The discovery of telomeres and telomerase completely revolutionized the way scientists and researchers study aging and longevity. It immediately gained a reputation as an elixir of youth. It felt as if the secret to everlasting youth was out.
The importance of this discovery could be gauged from the fact that she was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, becoming the first woman Nobel laureate of Australia.
What are Telomeres?
Telomeres are bits of junk DNA that are located at the ends of chromosomes. They are the caps that protect our chromosomes. The painstaking details could become a little difficult for those who are not scientifically inclined but believe me it’s quite interesting, and knowing it will make you more aware.
To make it simple and understandable, let’s use an analogy.
A beautiful analogy is a shoelace.
According to Elizabeth Blackburn, our shoes have plastic tips at the end of the shoelace, called aglet which protects the shoelace from fraying. When the tips are frayed, the shoelace finds it difficult to pass through the lace eye. In the same way, telomeres are like the plastic tips at the end of the chromosomes that keep them intact and protects them from decaying and dying. They are like nature’s shoelaces. Thanks, nature, for it!
Every organ in our body is made up of cells that house the DNA (the genetic material that makes us who we are- our life’s blueprint). Every day, in fact, every moment the body is going through the most valuable process- cell division. Cell division which produces new cells when old cells divide is key to the growth and development of life. If our cells couldn’t replicate and create new cells, our bodies cannot produce new skin cells to heal wounds or grow hairs and fingernails back. Thus, cell division is an essential component of repair and replenishment.
Now, each and every time a cell divides, the information within the DNA has to be copied, because that carries the operating instructions: which would then be used by the new cell to perform its intended function. But the cell divides in such a way that the very last bit of chromosome, the telomere, cannot be completely copied. A little bit gets cut off and worn down, thus with every cell division process, the telomeres become shorter and shorter, eventually forcing the cell to stop dividing.
It seems as if the telomere is sending out a warning signal to the cells, “It’s time to die.”
The cells are longer able to replicate and divide eventually dies, leading to tissue damage and the dreaded ghost of aging catches up. Our skin cells start to die and we see wrinkles appear. Hair pigment cells die and we see grey hair cropping up and more. Your immune system cells deteriorate and die triggering physiological changes in the body increasing the risks of diseases like cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, dementia and more. Various studies also confirm that chronic stress and a poor lifestyle too shortens telomeres. Well, we all know this ghost! Isn’t it?
Studies show that on average most cells divide approximately 40-50 times before the telomeres become too short to do the job, causing our cells to age, malfunction, and inflame.
Can we delay aging by taking care of telomeres?
The answer: Elizabeth’s discovery of an enzyme called telomerase. Of the many factors that help build and renew telomeres back again, telomerase is one of them.
In her book, “The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer” she makes the heartening revelation that the shortening of telomeres can be checked and controlled.
It is possible to renew your cells and telomeres anytime. We cannot change biological aging, it is happening in all of us, whether we like it or not, it’s a process that we can’t stop from happening. but we can definitely change the rate and slow down aging. Thus, we can keep ourselves healthier for long and stave off diseases of aging. This can delay our entry from health-span (the number of years we remain healthy and disease-free) to disease-span. The enzyme telomerase can slow down, prevent and even partially reverse the shortening of telomeres. Of course, we cannot cheat death, but taking care of nature’s shoelaces might help us to keep dancing for long. I’ll cover that in Part II.
However, a few animal species can escape the aging process and seems to live forever, like Lobsters. Well, the real truth is that lobsters are not exactly “immortal” or live forever, but they are known to live for hundreds of years and they don’t age like humans. As humans, we grow up and reach our prime youth and then start going downhill.
Lobsters on the other hand never reach their prime, rather they keep growing bigger and better. In fact, with age, they become more fertile.
Are you feeling envious!
I am sure you really want to know the secret of their eternal youth. Right? It’s all thanks to a never-ending supply of the enzyme telomerase. Unlike humans, lobsters produce lots of this enzyme in all of their cells throughout the entirety of their lives allowing them to regain the lost telomere and thus maintain their youthful charm.
Want some proof!
Like to share two stories of lobsters aged 140 and 132 years old who had a happy ending. In 2017 a lobster named Louie was given a new lease of life. Louie had spent 20 years in the tank of a Long Island eatery- New York waiting for his turn to be served on the dinner plate, but somehow avoided being eaten for so long. It weighed 20 lbs and was estimated to be 130+ years old. Louie was finally released by the eatery owner near Atlantic Beach. The interesting part was that the hotel owner was offered $ 1,000 by a customer to feast on Louie on Father’s Day, just two weeks prior to his release.
In another equally interesting story in 2009, a 140-year-old lobster named George that was destined to be adorned and served on a dinner plate was released back into the ocean after a seafood restaurant in New York granted him a reprieve, thanks to the efforts of the animal rights group PETA.
George weighed almost 9 Kgs and was approximately 140 years old estimated by his weight.
Both Louie and George did not set any records for age, but they did something that very few lucky lobsters have done before: escaped with their life. I am sure and hope that they both live long and raise their families as lobsters are known to retain their fertility forever.
This blog post is part one of a three-part series to understand the aging mystery and the role of telomeres and telomerase.
In the next part, we will look at ways to slow down aging, lengthen telomeres and even reverse aging. So, make sure you don’t miss it.
Let me know your view and opinion in the comments box below as to how did you like this blog!