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Study backs theory that accumulating mutations of 'quiet' genes foster aging

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- A theory that suggests the aging process might be safely slowed by targeting genes that are quiet early but threaten damage later in life has gotten a boost from new findings from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The researchers don't promote such tinkering in their paper, which appears online this week in advance of publication by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Rather they detail their tests, based on models of mathematical prediction, of the two leading evolutionary theories of aging on the reproductive success of 100 different genotypes of fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) across various age groups.

The results suggest that more needs to be learned about which genes do what and when in the aging process so that artificial manipulation does not cause evolutionary damage in future generations, said Kimberly A. Hughes, an animal biologist in the Program in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Illinois.

The study provides the strongest support yet for the theory of mutation accumulation (MA), Hughes said. The theory, which has been difficult for scientists to test, proposes that aging is the result of an accumulation of mutations of genes that are kept in check by reproductive-oriented selection processes early in life and only are active later on.

Examples are genes associated with Huntington's disease and forms of cancer that strike late in life. Such mutations exist in prime reproductive years but only have noticeable effects late in life. In old age, when reproduction is not an organism's primary function, accumulating mutations are no longer checked by selection, increasing the risk of disease.

The other, more widely accepted theory of antagonistic pleiotrophy (AP) says that aging occurs when genes that offer help during the reproductive years -- those that produce estrogen, for example -- take on harmful roles later in life. Selection under AP theory favors t
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Contact: Jim Barlow
b-james3@uiuc.edu
217-333-5802
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
14-Oct-2002


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