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Tweaking The Power Of Life

Attention, science fiction writers: If you’re having writer’s block, I’ve got a plot for you, and all I ask is that you mention me with a nice statement about my charm and good looks on your acknowledgements page. The inspiration comes, of course, from scientific research. Two studies provide for a pair of intertwined plotlines, dripping with the kind of bioethical issues that can easily lead to good fight scenes.

Study One:

Maria A. Blasco and Bruno M. Bernardes de Jesus at the Spanish National Cancer Research Center have found a way to extend the lifespan of mice in a way that could be applied to humans. It’s a gene therapy that targets the telomeres, the end caps of chromosomes that deteriorate with age. The therapy repairs or slows down damage to the telomeres, without causing an increase in the rate of cancer. Mice that received the therapy had life spans an average of 24 percent longer than mice that did not. For human beings, such an impact would bring average life expectancy up into the nineties.

piezoelectric virusStudy Two:

Byung Yang Lee, Seung-Wuk Lee, and Ramamoorthy Ramesh of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories have found a virus that you actually want your computer to have – because it can be used to generate electricity. The virus is harmless to humans. It infects bacteria only. The virus has a tubular shape that causes it to tend to line up in orderly rows when assembled in large numbers. The virus also happens to be constructed in such a way that makes it piezoelectric, meaning that it can generate carry an electric charge in response to the application of physical force.

The Science Fiction Plot:

Imagine a world in which people are expected to live to be a hundred years old, thanks to a gene therapy that protects their telomeres, and which is free of the pollution now associated with the generation of electricity, thanks to the use of piezoelectric squares packed with electrically conductive viruses that are harmful to humans, linked up into gigantic networks of sidewalks and roads that stretch across entire continents.

Problems arise, however, when the virus becomes biologically adaptive, infecting a bacteria that grows along the roadways and sidewalks, and begins to evolve to exploit its new interconnectedness… into a new form of life that “thinks” using the roadways as nerves and has, as its physical body, the entire system of objects that are powered by the electricity generated by those roadways. So, people’s toasters, transportation and telephones begin behaving in frighteningly unusual ways.

At the same time, the human population of the Earth is undergoing a new boom. Shortened telomeres, it turns out, lead to prolonged reproductive ability as well as prolonged life span, and families of five children have become the worldwide average. Given that those children all have 100-year life spans, they require a lot more food, which requires the use of more land and water for agriculture, and now, in the third generation after the discovery of the telomere therapy, things are getting very tight on Planet Earth.

Two heroes find two very different ways of solving these problems, and assemble what forces they can to apply their ideas, in contradiction, and then in open conflict, with each other. Soon, each hero begins to question what he/she is really fighting for, because the survival of the human species is on the line, but protecting it may bring about further consequences…

4 comments to Tweaking The Power Of Life

  • Just FYI (because I’m a scientist, and therefore a party-pooper): significant life-extension in lab animals has been demonstrated many times, by many means (the least sexy of which is simply to feed them less; within limits the less an animal eats, the longer it lives). And life-extension via telomere stabilization is old news. The Spanish work is novel in that they have used the heroic (and completely impractical) method of gene therapy to stabilize the telomeres, but there are already simple small-molecule drugs (AKA ‘pills’) which will do the same thing.

    As biologists (including, to my chagrin, myself) have learned the hard way time and again, many biological effects observed in the laboratory, under perfect environmental and physiological and nutritional conditions, fail to translate into the real world (AKA ‘the environment’) which is full of hard knocks. As a trivial (but nonetheless illustrative) example, stabilizing your telomeres won’t do you much good if you get hit by a truck. And, while stabilizing your telomeres might just extend your lifespan to, say, 100, it will do nothing to prevent most of the infirmities which come with old age. Me, I’d be more interested in a pill which would prevent me from living to be 100. Fortunately, I’ve got some.

    • Could you elaborate on the pills that stabilize the telomeres, i was under the impression that they get cleaved with every cell division. So therefore you would have to slow cell division, I know that PH can can do this to a certain degree, but your still fundamentally limited by the number of divisions, average ages are increasing but the maximum is not. Now if your going to use gene therapy, you could in fact add more telomeres to the cells, with the added risk of genetic corruption and increased cancer risk. Furthermore in theory you could culture adult stem cells, and then sequence the cultures for accuracy and reinject them. Being that this is certainly a long time away, and there is no good reason to keep most old people alive, its unrealistic to expect to live forever. But if a person COULD live forever with continued cell growth, what would happen to their mind over time, would they gradually evolve as a person or become “stuck” .

      • I was speaking loosely of ‘pills’…such pills don’t exist today…I just didn’t want to say the geeky “small-molecule telomerase inhibitors” and leave it at that.

        Telomeres are maintained in cells by an enzyme called telomerase, which tries to lengthen telomeres. In normal adult body cells it falls a little behind the opposing mechanism which clips a bit off the end of a cell’s telomeres with every cell division, and when the telomeres get too short the cell dies. In cancer cells this mechanism is usually screwed up, immortalizing the cells. The bio-pharmaceutical company Geron has invested zillions of dollars in developing both small-molecule telomerase inhibitors and activators, for cancer therapy and cell life-extension, respectively. The Wikipedia article on Geron and these experimental drugs is a pretty good read. Just don’t buy the stock (yet).

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