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Quest to reverse ageing, make humans immortal advances


Ageing gracefully… PHOTO CREDIT:

*Genetic tool could soon let scientists create new DNA that may help people live forever
A revolutionary new Deoxy Nucleic Acid (DNA)/genetic material tool could help take humanity a step closer to eternal life.

The device pioneers a new technique that makes it cheaper and easier to synthesise genes ‘overnight’ – a process that typically takes several days.

Scientists say the new system is also far more accurate than existing methods, allowing researchers to build DNA strands up to 10 times longer than current technology.

The technique could help scientists working to reverse the ageing process by manipulating a key molecule called telomerase – thought to repair our DNA.


Scientists at the University of California (UC) at Berkeley, United States, said it could lead to ‘DNA printers’ in research labs that work like the 3D printers in many modern workshops.

“If you’re a mechanical engineer, it’s really nice to have a 3D printer in your shop that can print out a part overnight so you can test it the next morning,” said UC Berkeley graduate student Dan Arlow.

“If you’re a researcher or bioengineer and you have an instrument that streamlines DNA synthesis, a ‘DNA printer’, you can test your ideas faster and try out more new ideas. I think it will lead to a lot of innovation.”

Current gene synthesis techniques are slow and expensive as they add bases, the basic building blocks of DNA, one at a time.

The process often fails and can only produce very short strands up to 200 bases in length.

If scientists need a longer sequence, they have to laboriously stitch these together using a cocktail of organic chemicals.

The new method gets around some of these problems via a ‘brute force approach’ that utilises molecules, which occur naturally in the body.

It relies on enzymes – small proteins that our bodies use to speed up chemical reactions – to physically bind each new piece of DNA to the sequence.

Each enzyme is then snipped from the sequence and discarded in a process that allows researchers to create single strands of DNA up to 2,000 bases long.

This is 10 times longer than current techniques allow and rapidly speeds up the process of synthesising genes for research.

Normally scientists must order genes from a special laboratory that charges upwards of £225 ($300) per gene in a process that can take two weeks to reach recipients.

How might scientists use telomerase to reverse the process of ageing? Scientists decoded an enzyme thought to halt ageing in plants, animals and humans as part of a recent breakthrough study.

Unravelling the structure of the complex enzyme, called telomerase, could lead to drugs that slow or block the ageing process, along with new treatments for cancer, researchers reported in the journal Nature in April.

Elated scientists announced the completion of a 20-year quest to map the enzyme thought to forestall ageing by repairing the tips of chromosomes.

“It has been a long time coming,” lead investigator Kathleen Collins, a molecular biologist at the University of California in Berkeley, said in a statement.

“Our findings provide a structural framework for understanding human telomerase disease mutations, and represent an important step towards telomerase-related clinical therapeutics.”

Part protein and part RNA (genetic material that relays instructions for building proteins) telomerase acts on microscopic sheaths, known as telomeres, that cover the tips of the chromosomes found inside all cells.

In humans, each cell contains 23 pairs of chromosomes, including one pair of sex chromosomes – the ‘X’ and ‘Y’ – that differ between males and females.

Australian-American biologist Elizabeth Blackburn, who shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering telomeres and their protective function in the 1970s, likened them to the tiny plastic caps that keep shoelaces from fraying.

Eventually, however, shoelace tips and telomeres do break down: every time a cell divides the telomeres get worn a little bit more, until the cell stops dividing and dies. This, biologists agree, is probably central to the natural ageing process.

The Berkeley team said their enzyme method could one day write whole new genes overnight for a fraction of the cost.

They believe that enzymes are key to improving the accuracy of current techniques because they are what the body uses to build its own genetic code.

“We have come up with a novel way to synthesise DNA that harnesses the machinery that nature itself uses to make DNA,” project scientist Sebastian Palluk said.

“This approach is promising because enzymes have evolved for millions of years to perform this exact chemistry.”

The method, detailed in the journal Nature Biotechnology, could make it cheaper and easier for biologists to uncover new cures for diseases.

“We believe that increased access to DNA constructs will speed up the development of new cures for diseases and simplify the production of new medicines,” Palluk added.


The technique may also help researchers in their quest to reverse the process of ageing and make humans immortal.

In April, scientists decoded an enzyme thought to halt ageing in plants, animals and humans after a 20-year plight.

Elated scientists announced the completion of a 20-year quest to map the enzyme thought to forestall ageing by repairing the tips of chromosomes.

Unravelling the structure of the complex enzyme, known as telomerase, could lead to drugs that slow the ageing process – or block it entirely.

To developed these drugs, scientists will need to synthesise the DNA the body uses to build telomerase – a process the new Berekeley gene tool could accelerate.

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