Scientists are working on mutations to generate immortality. This is not a comic book. Early experiments have greatly extended the lifespan of bioen gineered worms, enhancing their genetic integrity and giving them resistance to many things that would normally kill them. Again, this is not a comic book. Or a horror movie.
Caenorhabditis Elegans, or C. Elegans for scientists who don't want to waste half their life saying the first word, are the all rounders of the genetic modification world. An extremely simple and easy-to-incubate lifeform, they nevertheless model many vital genetic aspects and have been used in everything from cancer studies to biological computing prototypes.
Harvard medical school staff have engaged in (Elegans) immortality research based on a simple observation: certain cell lines are immortal. You'll be gone by the end of the century, and your current skin'll be gone before the end of the month, but in your very existence the immortality of the first primate lives on. While "somatic" cells (the cells that make everything except babies) wither and die, the "germ" cells (sperm and ova for us) make new organisms, which then replicate and make new germ cells, and are effectively immortal.
There's more to this than Reader's Digest essays on living on through your children - germ cells are far, far better at staying alive than their somatic siblings. Specially designed to convey genetic information to offspring (the entire point of a species), germ cells express enhanced immune abilities and resistance to many genetic stresses which break up regular cells. And the Harvard team have tricked their somatic cousins into acting the same way.
By modifying the DAF-16 transcription factor the team gifted the millimeter-scale worms with extended lifespans, and if you guessed that there are an insane number of extra effects beyond "one single gene tweak" then congratulations on understanding genetics better than Hollywood does.
Don't worry about overcrowding or hiring Soylent chefs just yet, though. While the research is applicable to mammalian cells in many ways, the simple fact is that you are your neurons, not your germ cells, and those neural cells are pretty different from the C Elegans model. It's certainly conceivable that we could adapt neurons the same way (though conceiving isn't something we'll want to do when everyone lives eternally), but unless the Einstein and Feynmann of genetics already exist and are the same person, you're one or two generations too early.
Posted by Casey Kazan.
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