Solar-powered cells can potentially slow down aging, claims study
The use of solar-powered cells could help prolong the human lifespan, reveals a study published in Nature. It was found that genetically engineered mitochondria, which can convert light energy into chemical energy, extended the life of the microscopic roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans. The research provides insights into the complex biological role of mitochondria in the human body, an area that scientists have just begun exploring.
Why does this story matter?
- C. elegans is a widely used research tool, like the fruit fly Drosophila, to understand basic biological principles.
- Talking about the aging process, it has been known that mitochondrial dysfunction has a "central role" but the exact causes have not been determined as yet.
- Notably, the current investigation enhances our understanding of the aging process and provides new research strategies.
Why is mitochondria an important organelle?
Often known as the "powerhouse of the cell," mitochondria are organelles found in most body cells except a few, like the red blood cells. Mitochondria use glucose to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a chemical compound that provides energy for key functions in the cell, which include muscle contraction and electrical impulses that help nerve cells communicate with each other.
What role do mitochondria have in aging?
The production of ATP is governed by several processes which have been made possible by the exchange of protons across the membrane that segregates different parts of mitochondria, which eventually gives rise to what's called the "membrane potential." It has been shown that this membrane potential gradually declines with age, and has an effect on a number of age-related diseases, including neurodegenerative disorders.
Optogenetics has been traditionally used in neuroscience
In the study, researchers used optogenetics, a technique that has been generally used in neuroscience to target and activate specific neurons, thereby enabling a more precise study of patterns of brain activity. Optogenetics, which is a combination of both optics and genetics, allows researchers to use light to turn cells on or off with unparalleled precision and resolution.
Researchers observed 30-40% increase in the lifespan of C. elegans
Researchers genetically engineered the mitochondria of C. elegans to include a light-activated proton pump, obtained from fungus. When exposed to light, the proton pumps moved charged ions across the membrane, by deriving energy from the light to charge the mitochondria. This process, termed mitochondria-ON (mtON), increased the membrane potential and ATP production and resulted in a 30-40% increase in the lifespan of the roundworms.
The optogenetic tool acts like a solar panel
"What we have done is essentially hooked up a solar panel to the existing power plant [mitochondria] infrastructure," explained Brandon Berry, first author of the study. "In this instance, the solar panel is the optogenetic tool mtON," he added. "The normal mitochondrial machinery is then able to harness the light energy to provide the ATP in addition to the normal combustion pathway."
The findings from the study have unveiled new research methods
"Our findings provide direct causal evidence that rescuing the age-related decline in mitochondrial membrane potential is sufficient to slow the rate of aging and extend healthspan and lifespan," reveals the study. The current investigation has unveiled new research tools for the further study of mitochondria. Scientists will be able to discover new ways to treat age-related diseases.
Further experiments will be performed in rodents as well
"We need to understand more about how mitochondria truly behave in an animal," said Berry. "First in worms, like the current study, but then in human cells in culture and in rodents."