Koalaty Science: Elongated life?

Can telomeres be used to extend life?
Photo by Benjamin Minch.

By Benjamin Minch, Staff Writer

Each time your cells divide, you age. You may not know it, but thousands of your cells are constantly dying off every minute, causing you to get older and older. This process of aging however, can possibly be reversed with a highly controversial method of elongating telomeres. This process has the potential to being the foundations to an “eternal life” and could change science forever.

Telomeres are long strands of repeated nucleotide bases at the ends of all of your chromosomes. These regions are seemingly useless because they don’t code for any protein, but they are vitally important to cell division. Every time a cell divides, part of the chromosome must be cut off due to the polarity of DNA. If telomeres didn’t exist, you would lose valuable protein-making DNA each time your cells divided. This however, gets replaced with only losing parts of DNA that don’t affect your proteins.

This causes your telomeres to get extremely short over time because they are constantly being shortened without regrowth. Over time, they will eventually shorten beyond the point of being shortened any more and the cell will stop dividing. This means that once the cell dies, it is dead for good, which causes aging and eventually, death.

There is however, a loophole. Telomerase is an enzyme that adds nucleotides onto the telomeres, extending them. Why then do telomeres get shorter? They get shorter because telomerase is only found inside of gametes, or sex cells. These are cells that need very long telomeres because the chromosomes will eventually be passed onto the next generation. You wouldn’t want your child to start off at 43-years-old, and die 40 years later due to aging. If this were the case, the whole human population would go extinct.

Recently, telomerase has been experimented with and put into normal somatic cells of the body. These cells are usually devoid of this extension enzyme, but with the addition of telomerase, they did display the desired effect of elongated chromosomes. This is very similar to the mechanism used in cancer cells to divide without ever dying out. It seems as though cancer mutations also cause creation of these telomerase enzymes as well.

This new discovery of telomerase in other cells however, is highly controversial. Extending telomeres could be seen as a form of “playing God”, as they would theoretically let you live forever. Others believe that we should take advantage of this to live longer and extend our lifespan. I think that this view is highly skewed and will cause more problems than it has answers.

Extending telomeres and extending lifespan will contribute to our ever growing problem of overpopulation. Extending life, even by 10 years, will increase populations exponentially. This is precisely why extending life is a bad idea and why there aren’t telomerase molecules in these cells to begin with.

Everything in your body was designed for a specific purpose and changing that purpose via modification of cells is going against this design. This is bound to cause problems as it violates the sole purpose of the cells to perform their design. This use of science is highly unethical and should not be pursued any further.