Researchers at Calico hope to sift through AncestryDNA's database to find a treatment or even a cure for aging. (Wikimedia Commons)
The secret to a longer life may be lurking in the DNA of the million or so folks who have signed up for the services of AncestryDNA. At least that is what Calico, a Google-funded company that is researching ways to make us all live longer, is hoping.
The two companies have teamed up to mine AncestryDNA’s genetic database for families with lots of very old people. The hope is that they will find a few bits of DNA that the long-lived people share -- and that this will lead Calico to life-extending therapies. We will all get to live longer even if we weren’t lucky enough to inherit that DNA.
The ultimate prize would be that the database holds a clue that helps us uncover why we age in the first place. Then we might be able to tweak the newly-uncovered process so that we really slow down aging or, dare I say it, stop it in its tracks.
That may seem like an exciting prospect, but we don’t know yet if AncestryDNA's database has what Calico is looking for. But in my opinion, this one is about as good as it gets right now for finding the silver bullet that slays aging. And if Calico can add data from 23andMe, another DNA testing company that Google has ponied up money for, then the chances get even better.
This all brings up a concern: I wonder how many of AncestryDNA’s customers realize that their health data might be used for more than their own ancestry research? The fact that the company can do this with customer DNA is buried deep in their seven pages of Terms and Conditions (although they did say that they regularly email privacy updates to their users). But if you're anything like me, you'll just check the box without reading all the fine print. I'll be keeping a close eye on any potential fallout from the company’s first official use of people’s DNA for something besides ancestry research.
That said, uncovering valuable insights from DNA seems like a good cause. Well, as long as these life extending therapies are ultimately available to the general public (AncestryDNA general manager Ken Chahine stressed his hope that the data, at least, will improve health care for everyone). Wouldn’t it be sad if someone whose DNA was used in the study could not afford the eventual treatment?
DNA + Ancestry Research = Jackpot
Mining a DNA database is only useful if the DNA tests and the information you need about the participants are present and accurate. Which is why AncestryDNA’s database is such a treasure trove for geneticists who study longevity.
AncestryDNA is affiliated with Ancestry.com which is a one-stop shop for investigating your family history. You can, among other things, build your family tree by following a paper trail back in time.
What this also means is you have the best-available data tied to your family tree. You know how old great aunt Tilly was when she died and you have the same sort of information for lots of other relatives up your family tree.
So researchers have as accurate a record as possible about whether your family has the right genes to live to a ripe old age. They don’t need to rely on word of mouth or shared family memory. They have data.
It is this combination of accurate historical data and accurate DNA tests that make AncestryDNA a promising partner for Calico. And the million-strong database will only continue to grow.
Not So Fast
In case anyone is getting overly excited, keep in mind this will be no easy feat. It will almost certainly be very hard to identify what makes some people live longer than others.
We know that aging is really just the slow breakdown of our cells and bodies. What we don’t know is why it happens when it does. (Click here for a detailed discussion of this point.)
The best case scenario is probably one where aging is due to some switch or program that kicks in at a certain time. Basically we can repair the damage to our bodies pretty well up to that point. If this is the case, then we really only need to find this program in our genes. We can then figure out how it works and how to disrupt it. The final part would be to develop or find a drug that shuts it down.
The problem becomes much harder if aging occurs because our repair can’t keep up with damage over time. In this case, there will probably be many different genes involved in many different processes that cause people to live longer.
Whatever the real process of aging is, we are also up against the fact that living a really long time probably was not a huge advantage thousands of years ago. Because of how natural selection works, this means there probably won't be a common DNA difference that explains living longer in all of these people.
Instead there will be extended family groups that share a DNA difference not found in other family groups. These are incredibly hard to find with the sorts of limited "GWAS" tests that AncestryDNA and 23andMe offer (click here to learn why this is). A better genetic test for cases like this are to either sequence every gene (exome sequencing) or every bit of DNA (whole genome sequencing).
We may have to wait longer to develop that ideal database for finding the fountain of youth. AncestryDNA's Chahine did say that genome sequencing "could make sense" in the future. Given how cheap and easy sequencing has become, that day may come sooner than we think.
Get the best of KQED’s science coverage in your inbox weekly.