The longest-lived human on record didn't make it much past 120 years. That's nothing compared to the ocean quahog, a fist-sized clam found off the coast of Maine. "They can live 500 years or longer. They've been sitting out there on the sea floor since before Shakespeare was born." Steven Austad's research focuses on understanding the underlying causes of aging at the molecular level. Although his studies take him in many fascinating directions, it's the ancient clams that everyone remembers. So what do animals like the quahog know about healthy aging that we don't? That question drives Austad's studies in comparative gerontology, which look to long-lived animals to identify new molecular targets to help humans.
Clams - technically, bivalve mollusks - live longer than any other animal group; more than a dozen species have lifespans of a century or more. But they are not all masters of aging. Austad's lab is studying mitochondrial function, protein stability and stress resistance across seven species of clams, with lifespans ranging from one year to the ocean quahog's 500-plus years. Austad's research has convinced him that one key to slowing aging is to protect the proteins inside our cells. "Proteins make everything work in the cell, and to do that, they have to be folded precisely like origami. But as we get older they get battered about, and ultimately lose that precise shape. Quahogs, unlike us, keep their proteins in shape century after century." When Austad takes human proteins and adds them to a mix of tissues from the clams, "they become more stable, less likely to unfold." His lab is now working to identify exactly what is protecting the clams' proteins. That mechanism could point to a potential treatment for aging, along with new therapies for Alzheimer's disease and other conditions caused by protein misfolding.