Why we age:

Insights from the Biology of Aging

Aging is an inherent property of most biological systems. While the genetic information is passed through the generations by the immortal germline, the soma –that is all non-germline tissues- is no longer required after the reproductive period.

Our evolutionary history has selected for genes that effectively maintain the functions of the body early in life. In contrast, genes that negatively impact the function of tissues and organs late in life have never been selected against and could therefore accumulate in our genomes. Our genetic composition is thus not suited for maintaining the body during ages that are nowadays reached by the majority of people.

The result is that as we age, the body’s functions decline and tissues degenerate; aging-associated diseases arise. It was

long thought that aging results invariably from the accumulation of macromolecular damage throughout a lifespan. However, the understanding of the biology of aging was revolutionized when two decades ago mutations were found in single genes that could dramatically extend the lifespan of a simple biological model, the nematode worm C. elegans. It turned out that the same genes influence lifespan in many other species and potentially also in humans. Importantly, the genes that determine aging also respond to environmental factors and nutrition.

A comprehensive overview of mechanisms of the aging process and potential intervention strategies that could help preventing aging-associated diseases will be discussed.

About the referee

Prof. Björn Schumacher, Ph.D. is full professor for Genome Stability in Ageing and Diseases at the “Cluster of Excellence: Cellular Stress Responses in Ageing-Associated Diseases” (CECAD) and since 2014 the acting director of the CECAD Research Centre at the University of Cologne. He received his PhD at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Munich and conducted his postdoctoral research as EMBO and Marie Curie fellow at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam.

B.S. received the innovation prize of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia, the European Research Council (ERC) starting grant, and coordinates the FP7 Marie Curie initial training network on chronic DNA damage in ageing (CodeAge). Professor Schumacher is secretary general of the German Society for Ageing Research (DGfA) and serves on several editorial boards.

His research interest focuses on the molecular mechanisms through which DNA damage contributes to cancer development and ageing-associated diseases. Employing the C. elegans system and mammalian disease models, his group uncovered cell-autonomous and systemic responses through which the ageing organism adapts to accumulating DNA damage with ageing. Through the understanding of the basic mechanisms of genome instability-driven ageing, Schumacher aims to contribute to the development of future strategies to prevent ageing-associated diseases.