A Newfound Link Between Cancer and Aging?
A new study in 2022 reveals a thought-provoking relationship between how long animals live and how quickly their genetic codes mutate.
Cancer is a product of time and mutations, and so researchers investigated its onset and impact within 16 unique mammals. A new perspective on DNA mutation broadens our understanding of aging and cancer development—and how we might be able to control it.
Mutations, Aging, and Cancer: A Primer
Cancer is the uncontrolled growth of cells. It is not a pathogen that infects the body, but a normal body process gone wrong.
Cells divide and multiply in our bodies all the time. Sometimes, during DNA replication, tiny mistakes (called mutations) appear randomly within the genetic code. Our bodies have mechanisms to correct these errors, and for much of our youth we remain strong and healthy as a result of these corrective measures.
However, these protections weaken as we age. Developing cancer becomes more likely as mutations slip past our defenses and continue to multiply. The longer we live, the more mutations we carry, and the likelihood of them manifesting into cancer increases.
A Biological Conundrum
Since mutations can occur randomly, biologists expect larger lifeforms (those with more cells) to have greater chances of developing cancer than smaller lifeforms.
Strangely, no association exists.
It is one of biology’s biggest mysteries as to why massive creatures like whales or elephants rarely seem to experience cancer. This is called Peto’s Paradox. Even stranger: some smaller creatures, like the naked mole rat, are completely resistant to cancer.
This phenomenon motivates researchers to look into the genetics of naked mole rats and whales. And while we’ve discovered that special genetic bonuses (like extra tumor-suppressing genes) benefit these creatures, a pattern for cancer rates across all other species is still poorly understood.
Cancer May Be Closely Associated with Lifespan
Researchers at the Wellcome Sanger Institute report the first study to look at how mutation rates compare with animal lifespans.
Mutation rates are simply the speed at which species beget mutations. Mammals with shorter lifespans have average mutation rates that are very fast. A mouse undergoes nearly 800 mutations in each of its four short years on Earth. Mammals with longer lifespans have average mutation rates that are much slower. In humans (average lifespan of roughly 84 years), it comes to fewer than 50 mutations per year.
The study also compares the number of mutations at time of death with other traits, like body mass and lifespan. For example, a giraffe has roughly 40,000 times more cells than a mouse. Or a human lives 90 times longer than a mouse. What surprised researchers was that the number of mutations at time of death differed only by a factor of three.
Such small differentiation suggests there may be a total number of mutations a species can collect before it dies. Since the mammals reached this number at different speeds, finding ways to control the rate of mutations may help stall cancer development, set back aging, and prolong life.
The Future of Cancer Research
The findings in this study ignite new questions for understanding cancer.
Confirming that mutation rate and lifespan are strongly correlated needs comparison to lifeforms beyond mammals, like fishes, birds, and even plants.
It will also be necessary to understand what factors control mutation rates. The answer to this likely lies within the complexities of DNA. Geneticists and oncologists are continuing to investigate genetic curiosities like tumor-suppressing genes and how they might impact mutation rates.
Aging is likely to be a confluence of many issues, like epigenetic changes or telomere shortening, but if mutations are involved then there may be hopes of slowing genetic damage—or even reversing it.
While just a first step, linking mutation rates to lifespan is a reframing of our understanding of cancer development, and it may open doors to new strategies and therapies for treating cancer or taming the number of health-related concerns that come with aging.
Timeline: The Most Important Science Headlines of 2022
Join us as we look back at some of the most exciting, inspiring, and biggest science stories that made headlines in 2022.
Scientific discoveries and technological innovation play a vital role in addressing many of the challenges and crises that we face every year.
The last year may have come and gone quickly, but scientists and researchers have worked painstakingly hard to advance our knowledge within a number of disciplines, industries, and projects around the world.
Over the course of 2022, it’s easy to lose track of all the amazing stories in science and technology.
At a Glance: Major Scientific Headlines of 2022
Below we dive a little deeper into some of the most interesting headlines, while providing links in case you want to explore these developments further.
The James Webb Space Telescope Arrives at its Destination
What happened: A new space telescope brings promise of exciting findings and beautiful images from the final frontier. This telescope builds on the legacy of its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, which launched over 30 years ago.
Why it matters: The James Webb Space Telescope is our latest state-of-the-art “window” into deep space. With more access to the infrared spectrum, new images, measurements, and observations of outer space will become available.
Complete: The Human Genome
What happened: Scientists finish sequencing the human genome.
Why it matters: A complete human genome allows researchers to better understand the genetic basis of human traits and diseases. New therapies and treatments are likely to arise from this development.
Monkeypox Breaks Out
What happened: A higher volume of cases of the monkeypox virus was reported in non-endemic countries.
Why it matters: Trailing in the shadow of a global pandemic, researchers are keeping a closer eye on how diseases spread. The sudden spike of multinational incidences of monkeypox raises questions about disease evolution and prevention.
» To learn more, read this article by the New York Times.
A Perfectly Preserved Woolly Mammoth
What happened: Gold miners unearth a 35,000 year old, well-preserved baby woolly mammoth in the Yukon tundra.
Why it matters: The mammoth, named Nun cho ga by the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, is the most complete specimen discovered in North America to date. Each new discovery allows paleontologists to broaden our knowledge of biodiversity and how life changes over time.
» To learn more, read this article from Smithsonian Magazine
The Rise of AI Art
What happened: Access to new computer programs, such as DALL-E and Midjourney, give members of the general public the ability to create images from text-prompts.
Why it matters: Widespread access to generative AI tools fuels inspiration—and controversy. Concern for artist rights and copyright violations grow as these programs potentially threaten to diminish creative labor.
Dead Organs Get a Second Chance
What happened: Researchers create a perfusion system that can revitalize organs after cellular death. Using a special mixture of blood and nutrients, organs of a dead pig can be sustained after death—and in some cases, even promote cellular repair.
Why it matters: This discovery could potentially lead to a greater shelf-life and supply of organs for transplant.
DART Delivers A Cosmic Nudge
What happened: NASA crashes a spacecraft into an asteroid just to see how much it would move. Dimorphos, a moonlet orbiting a larger asteroid called Didymos 6.8 million miles (11 million km) from Earth, is struck by the DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) spacecraft. NASA estimates that as much as 22 million pounds (10 million kg) was ejected after the impact.
Why it matters: Earth is constantly at risk of being struck by stray asteroids. Developing reliable methods of deflecting near-Earth objects could save us from meeting the same fate as the dinosaurs.
Falling Sperm Counts
What happened: A scientific review suggests human sperm counts are decreasing—up to 62% over the past 50 years.
Why it matters: A lower sperm count makes it more difficult to conceive naturally. Concerns about global declining male health also arise because sperm count is a marker for overall health. Researchers look to extraneous stressors that may be affecting this trend, such as diet, environment, or other means.
» To learn more, check out this article from the Guardian.
Finding Ancient DNA
What happened: Two million-year-old DNA is found in Greenland.
Why it matters: DNA is a record of biodiversity. Apart from showing that a desolate Arctic landscape was once teeming with life, ancient DNA gives hints about our advancement to modern life and how biodiversity evolves over time.
» To learn more, read this article from National Geographic
What happened: The U.S. Department of Energy reports achieving net energy gain for the first time in the development of nuclear fusion.
Why it matters: Fusion is often seen as the Holy Grail of safe clean energy, and this latest milestone brings researchers one step closer to harnessing nuclear fusion to power the world.
Science in the New Year
The future of scientific research looks bright. Researchers and scientists are continuing to push the boundaries of what we know and understand about the world around us.
For 2023, some disciplines are likely to continue to dominate headlines:
- Advancement in space continues with projects like the James Webb Space Telescope and SETI COSMIC’s hunt for life beyond Earth
- Climate action may become more demanding as recovery and prevention from extreme weather events continue into the new year
- Generative AI tools such as DALL-e and ChatGPT were opened to public use in 2022, and ignited widespread interest in the potential of artificial intelligence
- Even amidst the lingering shadow of COVID-19, new therapeutics should advance medicine into new territories
Where science is going remains to be seen, but this past year instills faith that 2023 will be filled with even more progress.
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