A gene has been identified in worms that improves their health, but not their lifespan, as they age.

Maintaining quality of life is becoming a focus in healthcare for the elderly, as people that live to the same age do not necessarily have the same quality of life. Some maintain both their movement and cognitive abilities, whilst some do not. The quality ‘healthspan’ gives a measure of how people’s health changes as they age. Scientists investigated the genetic basis for healthy ageing in worms, to try and understand how to promote greater healthspans in humans.

The worm species c. elegans have extremely short lifespans and age rapidly. The scientists inserted random mutations into the genomes of hundreds of c. elegans and studied their offspring. The worms were placed on a plate with food at the edge, which they instinctively moved towards. Any worms that were unable to reach the food on first day were determined to have impaired movement from birth and therefore removed from the study. The test was repeated on the third and fifth day. Any worms that failed to reach the food on each subsequent test day were determined to have impaired movement as they aged, whilst those that continued to reach the food day after day retained their movement as they age. Retaining movement as organisms age is an indicator of healthy ageing.

By comparing the genomes of the worms that had impaired movements as they aged and those that did not, a key gene was identified. Worms with defects in the gene elpc-2 had impaired movement as they aged. elpc-2 was found to affect the elongator complex, which produces proteins required for locomotion. The gene had no impact on the lifespans of the worms.

Worms that had the elpc-2 defect had their movement restored when injected with a copy of the healthy elpc-2 gene, which indicated that the impaired movement caused by ageing was reversible.

This study could help us understand how to ensure healthy ageing for humans in the future, so people can maintain good health throughout their life.

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