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Biologists switch on gene, extend flies' lives 30 percent

UCLA biologists may have just found a "fountain of youth" gene. In fruit flies, at least.

Gut of a fruit fly larva
A 25X closeup of a fruit fly intestine, where UCLA biologists recently activated a gene that slowed the aging process. Jessica Von Stetina

You may not have heard of AMPK, but if new research out of the University of California at Los Angeles is any indication, it might become a hot gene of the 21st century.

AMPK has been shown to activate autophagy, or cells' mechanism for discarding unnecessary or damaged components. The UCLA biologists deliberately activated AMPK in the intestines of fruit flies, and found that the little buggers' life-spans increased from about six weeks to eight weeks, a bump of about 30 percent.

Human bodies have AMPK as well -- though generally not at high levels -- so the hope is that one day, activating it could help extend our lives as well, or at least protect us from age-related diseases, some of which involve the buildup of a type of cellular garbage that can damage cells in the brain.

"Instead of studying the diseases of aging -- Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, cancer, stroke, cardiovascular disease, diabetes -- one by one, we believe it may be possible to intervene in the aging process and delay the onset of many of these diseases," David Walker, associate professor of integrative biology and physiology at UCLA, said in a statement. Walker is senior author of the research, which was reported earlier in September in the journal Cell Reports (PDF). "We are not there yet," he added, "and it could, of course, take many years, but that is our goal and we think it is realistic."

Notably, even though the researchers activated the genes in the fruit flies' intestines, they found that the autophagy process increased in the flies' brains as well. The reverse was also true; when the gene was turned on in the brain, the process increased in the intestine. The researchers believe this is a critical finding because one of the challenges of increasing our life-spans is that our organs need to be protected from the natural degradation that time brings. Introducing an anti-aging treatment into one organ that could benefit others as well could make the treatment extremely beneficial.

This isn't the first time Walker and a UCLA team have identified genes in fruit flies that can help slow the aging process. In 2013, they identified a gene called parkin that also helps cells clear out damaged components. By increasing levels of parkin, the researchers extended the lives of the flies. They believe that increasing the expression of parkin in the body could help prevent Parkinson's disease and other age-related illnesses in humans.