Long Live the Worms

Mar 06, 2020

By Rachel Cherney

Immortality is a trait only possible in science fiction and fantasy. However, with scientific and medical advancements, humans are able to live well past 100 years, the oldest undisputed* human to live was Sarah Knauss of the United States who died at 119 years, 97 days old. *There was a woman who lived to 122 years of age, but it is thought her daughter assumed her identity. As of 2019, the average human lifespan in the United States was 78.9 years. Is it only medicine that helps increase longevity, or do genetic factors play a role as well? 

To identify genes that play roles in aging, scientists from the United States and China worked with Caenorhabitis elegans (C. elegans for short), a small worm commonly used in science (see image to right). C. elegans is what’s known as a model organism – an organism (animal) that is cheap to take care of, fast to grow and reproduce, and relatively easy to genetically change. By removing two genes (named Daf-2 and Rsks-1), scientists were able to increase the C. elegans lifespan by 500%! The genes identified in C. elegans also have related genes in humans, meaning that scientists could try this experiment again, but in human cells. So, if these related genes have the same effect on humans as they do on C. elegans, it would bring the average human lifespan in the United States to 394.5 years! 

The potential for extending human life brings about numerous questions: Will we someday be able to live much longer than we are now? If we live longer, will we be healthier as well? What does lifespan extension mean for humans in terms of culture and society? Lastly, what impact would longer human life have on the environment? But, despite these questions, the idea of immortality is an intriguing and common one, spanning cultures and millenia.

Edited by Emma Goldberg and Jenna Beam