An extreme, emaciating diet could be one of the few promising leads in the centuries-long search for the fountain of youth. A new study of the tiny nematode worm C. elegans begins to explain this marvel of calorie restriction and hints at an easier way to achieve longevity.
Researchers at Duke University found that taking food away from C. elegans
triggers a state of arrested development: while the organism continues to wriggle about, foraging for food, its cells and organs are suspended in an ageless, quiescent state. When food becomes plentiful again, the worm develops as planned, but can live twice as long as normal.
The results appear June 19 in PLOS Genetics
"It is possible that low-nutrient diets set off the same pathways in us to put our cells in a quiescent state," said David R. Sherwood, an associate professor of biology at Duke University. "The trick is to find a way to pharmacologically manipulate this process so that we can get the anti-aging benefits without the pain of diet restriction."
Over the last 80 years, researchers have put a menagerie of model organisms on a diet, and they've seen that nutrient deprivation can extend the lifespan of rats, mice, yeast, flies, spiders, fish, monkeys and worms anywhere from 30 percent to 200 percent longer than their free-fed counterparts.
Outside the laboratory and in the real world, organisms like C. elegans
can experience bouts of feast or famine that no doubt affect their development and longevity. Sherwood's colleague Ryan Baugh, an assistant professor of medicine at Duke, showed that hatching C. elegans
eggs in a nutrient-free environment shut down their development completely. He asked Sherwood to investigate whether restricting diet to the point of starvation later in life would have the same effect.