Is Nuclear DNA Damage a Cause of Aging?

When people say "DNA" they usually mean nuclear DNA. Our nuclear DNA resides, as you might guess, in the nucleus of cells. It is the packaged blueprint for the proteins and biochemical processes that give rise to our physical structure, protected, repaired, and manipulated by a dazzlingly complex array of attendant biological machinery. Our cells are constantly assaulted by reactive molecules created as a byproduct of metabolic processes, and despite the very efficient DNA repair mechanisms we have evolved, damage to nuclear DNA accumulates slowly over time and results in mutations - changes to the information coded in the DNA strands - or other forms of outright impairment of cellular operations.

It is well settled that the level of nuclear DNA damage and mutation exhibited by an organism rises over time. It is also well settled that higher levels of nuclear DNA damage and mutation mean a greater cancer risk - this is one of the reasons why cancer is predominantly a disease of the old. The more cells that suffer DNA damage, the more likely it is that one or more cells experience exactly the type of damage needed to run amok as the self-replicating seeds to a cancer. But is nuclear DNA damage and mutation a cause of aging?

That increasing instability of the genome contributes to age-related degeneration is the present working assumption for much of the aging research community, but this hypothesis is not unchallenged. The lack of a definitive proof is one problem: there is no good experiment to show that reduction in nuclear DNA damage levels - and only nuclear DNA damage levels - extends life. We can point to, for example, the fact that calorie restriction results in lower nuclear DNA damage levels, but this is only correlation. Calorie restriction slows the progression of every measure of biological aging, and produces significant changes in all of the master controls of metabolism and their subsystems, which makes it very hard to tease out any one dominant first cause. (And where work is proceeding on that front, boosted autophagy is the leading candidate in any case).

Biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey has argued for the irrelevance of nuclear DNA damage to aging - beyond the issues of cancer risk, and over the present human life span, that is:

Since Szilard's seminal 1959 article, the role of accumulating nuclear DNA (nDNA) damage - whether as mutations, i.e. changes to sequence, or as epimutations, i.e. adventitious but persistent alterations to methylation and other decorations of nDNA and histones - has been widely touted as likely to contribute substantially to the aging process throughout the animal kingdom. Such damage certainly accumulates with age and is central to one of the most prevalent age-related causes of death in mammals, namely cancer. However, its role in contributing to the rates of other aspects of aging is less clear. Here I argue that, in animals prone to cancer, evolutionary pressure to postpone cancer will drive the fidelity of nDNA maintenance and repair to a level greatly exceeding that needed to prevent nDNA damage from reaching levels during a normal lifetime that are pathogenic other than via cancer or, possibly, apoptosis resistance.

The high level goal of de Grey's SENS program is to develop the biotechnologies needed to repair and reverse all of the identified biochemical differences between a young person and an old person. That remit obviously includes nuclear DNA damage and mutation, but de Gray's position above is essentially an efficiency argument - other forms of difference are far more important, so the research community should deal with those first.

This is far from the last word in the ongoing debate over aging and nuclear DNA damage, of course, and until someone designs an experiment to show extended life in mice achieved through nothing more than better DNA repair, it will remain a debate. If you look back into the Fight Aging! archives, you'll find more on this topic:

There are good arguments and supporting evidence on either side; sometimes in the life sciences you have to accept that a good answer beyond mere hypothesis remains elusive, and more work must be done in order to change that fact.


I'm a layman and I'm trying desperatly to understand all of this but I have to say that I understood 90% of what is written here. Thankyou to the person that wrote this. I want to understand certain things. Why can't we just use gene therapy to repair the deletions and mutations in nDNA?

Posted by: Mark Breen at May 27th, 2011 7:18 AM

@Mark Breen: The short answer is that gene therapy isn't useful now to that end because nuclear DNA damage is stochastic - it's different in every cell. That's an oversimplification of a very complex reality, but it's basically the case that you'd have to have a system capable of examining cell by cell and fixing each cell's individual issues.

Such a system is proposed by Robert Freitas, but it's not going to arrive any time soon: it will require molecular manufacturing and control of nanorobots. It's feasible in the sense of being possible under the laws of physics, but it's definitely a way out from here.

Posted by: Reason at May 27th, 2011 8:58 AM

A very good read with alot of eductaive material. From what i gather from your writting, its important to detoxify all the time,use products that clear off free radicals and reduce calorie intake as a measure towards slowing aging.

Posted by: Jane Kamau at August 11th, 2014 3:31 AM

An interesting article that argues aging is primarily caused by epigenetic transposon activity.

"Replicative transposition is self-duplicating, enabling the number of retrotransposon-induced mutations to grow exponentially"

Would like to see a study showing the affect of increasing piRNA (that can block transposons).

Posted by: trying2survive at April 6th, 2017 5:25 PM

Intense sunlight or radiation can cause skin aging by killing cells and increasing melanoma risk. ATM is a gene that repairs the dreaded double-stranded DNA break that could occur with intense sunlight or radiation. Studies have shown that the A allele of ATM SNP rs1801516 decreases melanoma risk by 0.84 risk, though only about 1% of the population is homozygous (AA) for the allele. Perhaps in the future, this allele could be transferred by CRISPR technology to reduce melanoma risk, and more perhaps more importantly, protect DNA throughout the genome from double-stranded DNA breaks and reduce the risk of many types of cancer. I happen to have the AA condition by inheritance for this ATM SNP.

Posted by: Biotechy at August 12th, 2017 9:55 AM

In short Aubrey is saying that our DNA damage response is useless? Our DDR does more than just prevent cancer. Look at people who have a mutation in the genes that repair DNA damage. They do not necessarily have cancer, in fact they have diseases that are commonly associated with old age. Saying that we do not need to repair nuclear DNA over a lifetime is atrocious!
Stochastic accumulation of DNA damage rises from the fact that DDR has malfunctioned. This allows damage to occur anywhere it wants.
Therefore gene therapy will not only be able to help people with inherited genetic mutation, but will also allow us to correct damage not just to any genes but our repair genes.
However remember to progress in our search for anti-aging we have to be open to all possibilities. Do your research to see both sides.

Posted by: Stella at January 28th, 2019 2:52 AM
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