Springer Online Journal Archives 1860-2000
Abstract Longevity varies between and within species. The existence of species-specific limit to human life-span and its partial heritability indicate the existence of genetic factors that influence the ageing process. Insight into the nature of these genetic factors is provided by evolutionary studies, notably the disposable soma theory, which suggests a central role of energy metabolism in determining life-span. Energy is important in two ways. First, the disposable soma theory indicates that the optimum energy investment in cell maintenance and repair processes will be tuned through natural selection to provide adequate, but not excessive, protection against random molecular damages (e.g. to DNA, proteins). All that is required is that the organism remains in a sound condition through its natural expectation of life in the wild environment, where accidents are the predominant cause of mortality. Secondly, energy is implicated because of the intrinsic vulnerability of mitochondria to damage that may interfere with the normal supply of energy to the cell via the oxidative phosphorylation pathways. Oxidative phosphorylation produces ATP, and as a by-product also produces highly reactive oxygen radicals that can damage many cell structures, including the mitochondria themselves. Several lines of evidence link, on the one hand, oxidative damage to cell ageing, and on the other hand, energy-dependent antioxidant defences to the preservation of cellular homeostasis, and hence, longevity. Models of cellular ageing in vitro allow direct investigation of mechanisms, such as oxidative damage, that contribute to limiting human life-span. The genetic substratum of inter-individual differences in longevity may be unraveled by a two-pronged reverse genetics approach: sibling pair analysis applied to nonagenarian and centenarian siblings, combined with association studies of centenarians, may lead to the identification of genetic influences upon human longevity. These studies have become practicable thanks to recent progress in human genome mapping, especially to the development of microsatellite markers and the integration of genetic and physical maps.
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