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Biomarkers and ageing: The clock-watcher

Stashed in: Singularity!, Aging, Science Too, Aging

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Horvath's clock emerges from epigenetics, the study of chemical and structural modifications made to the genome that do not alter the DNA sequence but that are passed along as cells divide and can influence how genes are expressed. As cells age, the pattern of epigenetic alterations shifts, and some of the changes seem to mark time. To determine a person's age, Horvath explores data for hundreds of far-flung positions on DNA from a sample of cells and notes how often those positions are methylated — that is, have a methyl group attached.

He has discovered an algorithm, based on the methylation status of a set of these genomic positions, that provides a remarkably accurate age estimate — not of the cells, but of the person the cells inhabit. White blood cells, for example, which may be just a few days or weeks old, will carry the signature of the 50-year-old donor they came from, plus or minus a few years. The same is true for DNA extracted from a cheek swab, the brain, the colon and numerous other organs. This sets the method apart from tests that rely on biomarkers of age that work in only one or two tissues, including the gold-standard dating procedure, aspartic acid racemization, which analyses proteins that are locked away for a lifetime in tooth or bone.

Once we understand age we can begin understanding how to cure aging.

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