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The link was discovered in C. elegans, a tiny roundworm which is often used in this kind of research. Scientists from the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah were looking at a gene called TOR. It's classed as a longevity gene by some, and is known to regulate cell growth and play a role in the oncogenesis of some cancers. When researchers studied a loss of this gene in some roundworms they noticed that the aging process was slowed down, but this also depended on the gene's relationship with another gene known as pha4/FoxA.
Food was also important in this relationship. When calories are plenty TOR is active, which decreases the activity of pha4/Fox A and this led to a shorter C.elegans lifespan. However, when calories were restricted, TOR activity was low and this increased the activity of pha4/FoxA, slowing down the aging process.
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Whilst this is brilliant news for worms, it's uncertain how this molecular relationship might play out in human genetics. So don't crack open the champagne and party like you're going to live until you're 199 - not just yet.
Whilst TOR and pha4/FoxA are present in many animals, including humans, further research will have to establish whether influencing their interactions can increase longevity. Such studies may also provide an opportunity to treat some cancers as FoxA is present in breast and prostate cancers.
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The biology of aging
This new research adds to an ever increasing body of knowledge about the biology of aging and longevity genes. It's also been shown that the aging process in worms can be changed by altering the levels of insulin. Lower levels of the hormone increased the activity of a protein called SKN-1, which gave better protection for cells and increased lifespan.
Whilst none of this research will alter the outcome of our meeting with the Grim Reaper, they may alter the date; postponing it for a few years at least.
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Are there longevity genes? Find out here http://www.brighthub.com/science/genetics/articles/13791.aspx