Turn Back Time: How Our Cells’ Noise Could Unlock Youth

Summary: A new study uncovered that aging clocks, which assess biological age, do so by measuring stochastic changes in cellular processes, particularly in DNA methylation. These clocks indicate that biological age, influenced by lifestyle and environmental factors, can deviate significantly from chronological age.

The study reveals that these variations increase with age, reflecting a loss of cellular control over time. Importantly, interventions like calorie restriction or cellular reprogramming can influence these stochastic variations, suggesting potential pathways for aging interventions and cellular rejuvenation.

Key Facts:

  1. Mechanism of Aging Clocks: Aging clocks measure the biological age by tracking the accumulation of random changes in DNA methylation, a process that naturally diverges as we age.
  2. Influence of Lifestyle on Aging: Lifestyle factors such as smoking can accelerate stochastic variations, while interventions like reduced calorie intake can decrease these changes.
  3. Reversibility of Aging: Reprogramming adult cells into stem cells can reverse the high stochastic variations associated with older cells back to the low levels typical of young, healthy cells.

Source: University of Cologne

Aging clocks can measure the biological age of humans with high precision. Biological age can be influenced by environmental factors such as smoking or diet, thus deviating from the chronological age that is calculated using the date of birth.

The precision of these aging clocks suggests that the aging process follows a programme. Scientists David Meyer and Professor Dr Björn Schumacher at CECAD, the Cluster of Excellence Cellular Stress Responses in Aging-Associated Diseases of the University of Cologne, have now discovered that aging clocks actually measure the increase in stochastic changes in cells.

The study ‘Aging clocks based on accumulating stochastic variation’ has been published in Nature Aging.

This shows a young woman.
The loss of control over the cells and the increase in stochastic variation is not restricted to DNA methylation. Credit: Neuroscience News

“Aging is triggered when the building blocks in our cells become damaged. Where this damage occurs is for the most part random. Our work combines the accuracy of aging clocks with the accumulation of entirely stochastic changes in our cells,” said Professor Schumacher.

Less checks, more noise

With increasing age, controlling the processes that occur in our cells becomes less effective, resulting in more stochastic results. This is particularly evident in the accumulation of stochastic changes in DNA methylation. Methylation refers to the chemical changes that affect DNA, the genome’s building blocks.

These methylation processes are strictly regulated within the body. However, during the course of one’s life, random changes occur in the methylation patterns. The accumulation of variation is a highly accurate indicator of a person’s age.

The loss of control over the cells and the increase in stochastic variation is not restricted to DNA methylation. Meyer and Schumacher demonstrate that the increase in stochastic variations also in the gene activity can be used as an aging clock.

“In principle it would be feasible to take this even further, allowing the stochastic variations in any process in the cell to predict age,” Schumacher said.

According to the authors, it is above all crucial to ascertain if such aging clocks can show the success of interventions that slow the aging process or harmful factors that accelerate aging.

Using the available datasets, the scientists showed that smoking increases the random changes in humans and that ‘anti-aging’ interventions such as lower calorie intake in mice reduces the variation in methylation patterns.

They also showed that the stochastic noise is even reversible by means of reprogramming body cells to stem cells. The scientists compared human fibroblasts from the skin that were reprogrammed into stem cells and as a result of the reprogramming are rejuvenating.

The high variation indicative of the age of the body cells was indeed reversed to the low stochastic noise of young stem cells.

Meyer and Schumacher hope that their findings on loss of regulation and the accumulating stochastic variations will lead to new interventions that can tackle the root cause of aging and may even lead to cellular rejuvenation.

A target for such interventions could be repairing stochastic changes in DNA or improved control of gene expression.

About this genetics and aging research news

Author: Anna Euteneuer
Source: University of Cologne
Contact: Anna Euteneuer – University of Cologne
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Aging clocks based on accumulating stochastic variation” by Björn Schumacher et al. Nature Aging


Aging clocks based on accumulating stochastic variation

Aging clocks have provided one of the most important recent breakthroughs in the biology of aging, and may provide indicators for the effectiveness of interventions in the aging process and preventive treatments for age-related diseases.

The reproducibility of accurate aging clocks has reinvigorated the debate on whether a programmed process underlies aging.

Here we show that accumulating stochastic variation in purely simulated data is sufficient to build aging clocks, and that first-generation and second-generation aging clocks are compatible with the accumulation of stochastic variation in DNA methylation or transcriptomic data.

We find that accumulating stochastic variation is sufficient to predict chronological and biological age, indicated by significant prediction differences in smoking, calorie restriction, heterochronic parabiosis and partial reprogramming.

Although our simulations may not explicitly rule out a programmed aging process, our results suggest that stochastically accumulating changes in any set of data that have a ground state at age zero are sufficient for generating aging clocks.

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