Posted on 19 August 2022
Longevity briefs provides a short summary of novel research in biology, medicine, or biotechnology that caught the attention of our researchers in Oxford, due to its potential to improve our health, wellbeing, and longevity.
Why is this research important: Some animals can enter hibernation, a state of torpor in which their metabolic rate slows to a crawl and in which they are able to remain for months at a time. The biology of hibernation could hold many useful secrets for human health. Not only are hibernating animals able to avoid the significant health deterioration that occurs when a human remains bedridden for months, but species that hibernate seem to have longer lifespans than similar species which do not. To understand why, we need to investigate how hibernation affects the fundamental biology of ageing.
What did the researchers do: In this study, researchers examined the epigenetic age of big brown bats during and in-between periods of hibernation. Epigenetic age is a measure of the true biological age of an organism’s tissues, and is calculated by looking at changes to the DNA that do not alter the genetic code itself, but can alter the way in which it is read (epigenetic modifications). Specifically, scientists sampled wing tissue from the bats and looked for the addition and removal of chemical ‘tags’ called methyl groups, which alter the activity of genes in which they are located.
Key takeaway(s) from this research: The researchers found that the bats’ epigenetic age correlated closely with their chronological age (the number of years since birth). However, epigenetic age was found to be significantly lower if measured during the winter (while the bats were in hibernation) when compared summer measurements. They found that hibernation mainly increased the addition of methyl groups to the DNA, and that many of the genes near the sites of these tags had previously been identified in studies looking at epigenetic modifications associated with longevity. A high number of these genes were involved in regulating the immune system, the metabolism, and the activity of other genes.
So, it seems as though hibernation does indeed slow down the rate of epigenetic ageing, but it remains to be seen whether this can tell us anything about treating human ageing that we don’t already know.
Big brown bats experience slower epigenetic ageing during hibernation: https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2022.0635