Scientists have long known that many species of animals live longer in colder than in warmer climates. By investigating Caenorhabditis elegans nematode worms – a frequently used model organism in aging research – a team of researchers from Washington State University (WSU) discovered that this phenomenon may be connected to a protein found in the nervous system that controls the expression of collagens, which are the building blocks of skin, bones, and connective tissues in many animals.
Since this protein is similar to nervous system receptors found in other species, including humans, this finding could help scientists find ways of harnessing collagen expression to increase lifespan as our planet continues to warm.
“Based on animal studies, scientists anticipate that human lifespan will go down in the future as climate change drives up the ambient temperature,” said senior author Yiyong (Ben) Liu, an expert in stress responses and their relationship to aging at WSU. “We have found that warm temperatures leading to short lifespan is not a passive, thermodynamic process as previously thought, but a regulated process controlled by the nervous system. Our findings mean that down the road, it may be possible to intervene in that process to extend human lifespan as temperatures rise.”
By examining a nervous system protein known as NPR-8 in C. elegans, the researchers found that worms lacking this protein had fewer skin wrinkles during aging. Moreover, mutant worms kept at higher temperatures had increased collagen expression and lived longer. The reintroduction of this protein in their nervous system reverted their skin from smooth to wrinkled and significantly reduced their lifespans.
While previous studies explained the phenomenon of heat shortening lifespan by arguing that heat speeds up an organism’s metabolism, causing it to use its metabolic energy faster, these new findings suggest that the nervous system plays an active role in this process too, with the NPR-8-controlled increase in collagen expression boosting the animals’ resistance to heat stress.
Future research is needed to better understand the underlying mechanisms by which increased collagen production enhances stress resistance.
The study is published in the journal Aging Cell.
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