Odds and Ends For a Quiet Saturday

Quiet if you're avoiding the rush, that is. A couple of items caught my eye, or otherwise came to my attention - such as by being the one to post it. That first then; a group photo from the Methuselah Foundation core volunteers meeting in Boston earlier this month. If you'd like to put faces to the names, go and take a look.

If all the folk who have helped and donated over the past few years were at the meeting, there wouldn't have been room on the pier - a great many people indeed have helped to make the Methuselah Foundation grow and succeed. Thank you all!

If you would like to see the Methuselah Foundation's initiatives - aimed at turning ever more of the scientific community to the defeat of aging - continue to grow, then the best ways to help are to offer your time and talents, and contribute to meeting Peter Thiel's $3 million matching grant for SENS research.

Moving on, I'm sure you've noticed that the work of Leonid Gavrilov and Natalia Gavrilova on the relationship of maternal age (and thus also birth order) to longevity is back in the press:

It turned out that first-born children were 1.7 times as likely as their siblings to live to be 100. An even stronger predictor of longevity was how young their mother was when they were born. Those whose mothers were less than 25 years old were twice as likely to survive beyond a century.

While the researchers aren't certain why this should be, they suspect younger mothers are less likely to have acquired latent infections during their life that could damage the health of the fetus. Younger mothers may also have better-quality eggs. "If the best, most vigorous maternal ova cells are used first - very early in life - this could explain why particularly young mothers produce particularly long-lived children," Gavrilov says.

As I pointed out earlier this year, this raises a great many questions:

This can be tied in with the researchers' reliability theory of aging - younger mothers are producing children with a lower initial load of cellular or genetic damage. This is a conceptual framework for thinking about the processes and advance of degenerative aging; it poses many more questions than it answers, says nothing about the underlying biochemistry, and exists to guide future research.

It will be interesting to see what the underlying mechanisms turn out to be - but I doubt they will be anything other than yet another advertisement for the merits of working rejuvenation technologies. We really need to get moving on the development of ways to effectively turn back and repair the accumulation of cellular damage that causes aging.

Next, a couple of good posts from Randall Parker on reasons for - and examples of - the accelerating trend of cost-effectiveness and capabilities in biotechnology:

Stem Cell Regulatory Circuitry Mapped

While I sometimes write posts about promising individual stem cell treatments no one announcement of a promising treatment or even a dozen such announcements will amount to much of a breakthrough given our current deficient state of knowledge on how cells work. The real breakthroughs that will provide us with the most power to produce treatments are going to come from the development of knowledge on how cells control their differentiation (i.e. how cells specialize to become heart muscle cells or liver cells or other specialized types). So this announcement is much more important than the average report about stem cell advances.

Once scientists understand the complex circuitry governing cell differentiation the next set of real important breakthroughs (though mostly invisible to the general public) will come. Scientists will seek to intervene in those cellular circuits and to do so they will develop techniques to tweak those circuits in highly precise and controlled ways.

Cells in the embryonic state are several state changes away from any other state such as muscle cell or artery lining cell or liver cell. Once we have detailed knowledge of the circuits that control cell state the need for embryonic stem cells will go way down. It will become possible to start with a cell in any state and tweak it to shift into any other state.

One Third Of MIT Engineers Work On Biology Problems

Biology used to advance at a snail's pace because its tools were so primitive. The influx of talent from semiconductor engineering and other engineering disciplines has greatly sped up the rate of progress in the field and promises to speed it up by orders of magnitude in the future. The field of microfluidics chases the idea of highly automated and cheap labs on a chip.

Imagine a chip made using semiconductor processes that has lots of reaction vessels and miniature tubes and valves, all digitally controllable. No more pipettes. No petri dishes. No lab techs making mistakes from the tedium. Software will be able to carry out long experimental sequences. Computer programs with limited domain-specific artificial intelligence will even be able to generate hypotheses and carry out experiments. That's where the world of biology is going.

Lastly, Phil Bowermaster discusses the intersection of popular culture, attraction to mortality, and the mindset that welcomes it; something that seems very embedded in the story forms and myths our culture is built upon and propagates anew.

The Hard Stuff

Or let's put it another way. If we can all agree that an average lifespan of 70 years possesses a poignancy and urgency that a 500-year lifespan might not, shouldn't we also agree that an average lifespan of 30 years would be even more beautiful and meaningful? Isn't it time we started rolling back the clock on sanitation, nutrition, medicine, and public safety so that people can lead more beautiful / meaningful lives?

No. I didn't think so.

...

Our ancestors of a couple centuries ago who had those poignant and urgent 30-year lifespans also struggled with figuring out the meaning of life. As do we. As will our offspring.

But the nice part is, they’ll get more time to work on it.

If we (personally, as younger individuals) don't make it into an era of radically extended life spans and advanced medicine, it'll be in no small part because we did ourselves in by failing to work and produce results when we could have succeeded.

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