Modular Engineering Approach to Extending Lifespan in C. elegans by 130% and a platform for progressive extensions

PLoS Genetics – Stanford University Researchers have taken an engineering approach to extending the lifespan of Caenorhabditis elegans. Aging stands out as a complex trait, because events that occur in old animals are not under strong natural selection. As a result, lifespan can be lengthened rationally using bioengineering to modulate gene expression or to add exogenous components. Here, we engineered longer lifespan by expressing genes from zebrafish encoding molecular functions not normally present in worms. Additionally, we extended lifespan by increasing the activity of four endogenous worm aging pathways. Next, we used a modular approach to extend lifespan by combining components. Finally, we used cell- and worm-based assays to analyze changes in cell physiology and as a rapid means to evaluate whether multi-component transgenic lines were likely to have extended longevity. Using engineering to add novel functions and to tune endogenous functions provides a new framework for lifespan extension that goes beyond the constraints of the worm genome.

We used bioengineering to extend the lifespan of C. elegans by expressing genes acting in critical aging pathways. We overexpressed five genes that act in endogenous worm aging pathways, as well as two genes from zebrafish encoding molecular functions not normally present in worms. For example, we used zebrafish genes to alter mitochondrial function and innate immunity in ways not normally available to C. elegans and extended worm lifespan by ~40%. Next, we used a modular approach to extend lifespan by 130% by combining up to four components in the same strain. These results provide a platform to build worms having progressively longer lifespans. This project is conceptually similar to using engineering to increase the useful lifespan of a primitive machine (1931 Model T) using both parts from the model T as well as parts from a more advanced machine (2012 Toyota Corolla). Our results open the door to use engineering to go beyond the constraints of the C. elegans genome to extend its lifespan by adding non-native components.

Seven aging components that individually are capable of extending lifespan 25–50%.

Using a modular approach to progressively increase lifespan

The seven aging components are individually capable of extending lifespan 25–50%. Because aging is a complex phenomenon affected by many pathways, our strategy to extend lifespan further was to use a modular approach by combining different aging components in a single transgenic strain to progressively extend lifespan. Additionally, we needed to develop a scheme to rapidly test whether or not combining genes in a new transgenic strain has a beneficial effect. This is because lifespan analysis requires four weeks for normal worms, and becomes even more tedious as lifespan increases. Our approach was to first use the cell- and worm-based assays described above to rapidly test whether worms expressing multiple aging components show a beneficial effect. Results showing that a multi-component strain shows protective changes in several pathways or stronger effects in a single aging pathway compared to single-components lines would be encouraging that it will live a long time.

We started by generating two transgenic worm strains that each contain two components; one combination (dual-1) contains aakg-2(sta2) and zebrafish ucp2 and the other combination (dual-2) contains hsf-1 and zebrafish lyz. These four components include two zebrafish genes that add new functionality to the worm (ucp2 and lyz) and two C. elegans genes that showed the largest increase in lifespan (aakg-2(sta2) and hsf-1). We used qRT-PCR to show that the components in the dual-module worms were expressed at levels equivalent to those from the single-module worms

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