Aging Process: Scientists Look to Short-Lived Fish to Find Anti-Aging Secrets For Humans

The secret to humans thriving well into old age may lie with a species that barely lives for any time at all: the East African turquoise killifish, whose four- to six-month lifespan makes it among the shortest-lived vertebrates on the planet. In March 2018, experimental biologist Itamar Harel will open a research lab at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to study the killifish, according to news site ISRAEL21c.

Researchers have looked for anti-aging secrets in every short-lived organism from worms to yeast, according to ISRAEL21c, but the killifish is a vertebrate, making it a much better analog to humans. Harel told Newsweek that it's the shortest-lived vertebrate that can still be grown in a lab. Yet despite its brief lifespan, its aging cycle overall bears a significant resemblance to our own; it’s like watching the human aging process, just sped up.

In their old age, killifish lose muscle mass, memory and immune strength, according to The New York Times, and the females go through the killifish equivalent of menopause.

download (7) The killifish's aging process shares a number of similarities to our own. Wikimedia Commons

Harel, a post-doctoral researcher at the Stanford University School of Medicine, previously used the Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, more commonly known as CRISPR, to create a tool that can analyze the killifish’s health and aging process.

Harel first mapped the killifish’s genes in 2015, when he found that manipulating a key gene could have implications for slowing and potentially reversing the human aging process. The gene is part of the enzyme telomerase, which is associated with anti-aging properties.

The killifish has been bred in captivity since 1968, but when Harel arrived at Stanford in 2013 scientists were still struggling to sequence its genome. What he created with CRISPR amounted to “molecular scissors,” according to The New York Times, which could cleanly cut out unwanted DNA and replace it with the DNA of Harel’s choosing.

"CRISPR has a emerged as a great way to edit the genomes of multiple model and non-model organisms, revolutionizing the way we can probe and better understand genetic processes," Harel told Newsweek over email. 

Harel is using CRISPR and the sequenced killifish genome to tweak relevant parts of the fish's DNA. Among the first conditions Harel will focus on is dyskeratosis congenita syndrome, a condition which causes a progressive loss of bone marrow as we age. In his current work he's also particularly focused on studying the brain.

With the prospect of his own lab at his disposal, he’ll be focusing on what insights the killifish can provide into age-associated diseases. So, that means not necessarily trying to stretch the human lifespan, but discovering how we can keep ourselves in good health for longer into our old age.