Living longer with science and religion

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Article Date: 
Dec 17 2012, 2205

The longevity gene Hydra immortal, that can make humans live longer, have been found by the researchers from Kiel University, Germany. While examining the factor that makes the polyp Hydra immortal, they unexpectedly discovered a link to aging in humans.
The tiny freshwater polyp Hydra does not show any signs of aging and is potentially immortal. There is a rather simple biological explanation for this: these animals exclusively reproduce by budding rather than by mating. A prerequisite for such vegetative-only reproduction is that each polyp contains stem cells capable of continuous proliferation, without which no animals reproduce. Due to its immortality, Hydra has been the subject of many studies regarding aging processes for several years. When people get older, more and more of their stem cells lose the ability to proliferate and thus, to form new cells. If it were possible to influence these aging processes, humans could feel physically better for a much longer time. Studying animal tissue such as those of Hydra — an animal full of active stem cells during all its life — may deliver valuable insight into stem cell aging as such, the researchers thought.
“Surprisingly, our search for the gene that causes Hydra to be immortal led us to the so-called FoxO gene,” reports Anna-Marei Böhm, the first author of the study. The FoxO gene exists in all animals including humans and has been known for years. However, until now, it was not known why human stem cells become fewer and inactive with increasing age, which biochemical mechanisms are involved and if FoxO played a role in aging. In order to find the gene, the research group isolated Hydra’s stem cells and then screened all of their genes, as reported in DailyScience in November. The Kiel research team examined FoxO in several genetically modified polyps: Hydra with normal FoxO, with inactive FoxO and with enhanced FoxO. The scientists were able to show that animals without FoxO possess significantly fewer stem cells. Interestingly, the immune system in animals with inactive FoxO also changes significantly. “Drastic changes of the immune system similar to those observed in Hydra are also known from elderly humans,” says Philip Rosenstiel of the Institute of Clinical Molecular Biology at the University Medical Centre Schleswig-Holstein, Germany.
“Our research group demonstrated for the first time that there is a direct link between the FoxO gene and aging,” claims Thomas Bosch from the Zoological Institute of Kiel University, who led the Hydra study. Bosch continues: “FoxO has been found to be particularly active in centenarians — people older than one hundred years — which is why we believe that FoxO plays a key role in aging — not only in Hydra but also in humans.” However, the hypothesis cannot be verified on humans currently, as this would require a genetic manipulation of humans. Scientifically, the study confirms that the FoxO gene plays a decisive role in the maintenance of stem cells. It thus, determines the life span of animals including humans. So it is possible to live longer.
Together with the longevity of life, we need to rediscover the intensity or happiness index of human beings. Just as science is making progress, religion that deals with the fulfilment or happiness of human beings should also develop. So drawing from their own resources and traditions, religions need to undertake research, preferably empirically verifiable ones, to enhance fulfilment, happiness and general well-being of humans as individuals and members of society.

(The writer is a professor of science and religion)