Assessing Retrotransposon Activity and Senescent Cell Burden in Mice by Age and Tissue

Retrotransposons are genetic sequences that can copy themselves to new locations in the genome. This activity increases with age, for reasons that are still poorly understood, and it is an open question as to the degree to which this is important as a cause of tissue dysfunction with aging. The arguments for and against are much the same as those for stochastic mutation of nuclear DNA to be a meaningful contribution to degenerative aging, with the most compelling model being the one in which mutations in stem or progenitor cells can spread widely in a tissue through their descendant somatic cells.

This open access paper is focused on assessing the growth in retrotransposon activity and the increasing burden of senescent cells with advancing age, the latter of which is of great interest given the development of senolytic therapies capable of selectively destroying senescent cells in old tissues. The two topics are not completely divorced from one another, as senescent cells have been shown to have higher retrotransposon activity, and this is necessary for the harmful signals that they generate, known as the senescence-associated secretory phenotype (SASP).

Tissue aging is the gradual decline of physiological homeostasis accompanied with accumulation of senescent cells, decreased clearance of unwanted biological compounds, and depletion of stem cells. Senescent cells were cell cycle arrested in response to various stimuli and identified using distinct phenotypes and changes in gene expression. Senescent cells that accumulate with aging can compromise normal tissue function and inhibit or stop repair and regeneration. Selective removal of senescent cells can slow the aging process and inhibits age-associated diseases leading to extended lifespans in mice and thus provides a possibility for developing antiaging therapy.

To monitor the appearance of senescent cells in vivo and target them, a clearer understanding of senescent cell expression markers is needed. We investigated the age-associated expression of three molecular hallmarks of aging: SA-β-gal, P16INK4a, and retrotransposable elements (RTEs), in different mouse tissues at three different stages in the aging process (1 month, 12 months, and 24 months). Our data showed that the expression of these markers is variable with aging in the different tissues. P16INK4a showed consistent increases with age in most tissues, while expression of RTEs was variable among different tissues examined.

Increased β-gal staining in cerebellar Purkinje neurons might reflect locomotor incoordination that is often associated with aged individuals. Increased β-gal staining also was observed in the hippocampus and substantia nigra, which are major brain regions associated with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, respectively. In addition, human aging is associated with reduced amounts of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) and increased protein concentrations, which might be attributed to an aged choroid plexus. Thus, specific brain regions appear to be highly sensitive to an aging phenotype, which suggested that further investigations are warranted, especially for the choroid plexus and for the unique functions of CSF in healthy people and patients.

Similar to the brain, mouse kidneys demonstrated significant upregulation of the aging markers used in this study, especially in the renal cortex. It was surprising that the kidneys expressed a senescent phenotype earlier than any of the other organs included in this study. These findings might reflect the essential role of the kidney in the aging process. Previous studies have not focused on this relationship. The kidney is important in maintaining homeostasis of the body, suggesting that aging of the kidney is more likely to occur earlier than other organs and possibly the age-related decline of other organs might be a consequence of failure of the kidney to effectively eliminate circulating age-inducing molecules. Since elderly humans have less renal functional reserve and are more susceptible to chronic renal diseases, actions to preserve renal function might help to delay or alleviate aging-related consequences in the whole body.

We demonstrated that aging significantly influenced specific brain regions, the renal cortex, pulmonary bronchioles, and interstitial cells of the testes but had little or no effect on lung parenchyma, the liver, heart, and testicular seminiferous tubules. In conclusion, the gradual functional decline of peripheral organs might be a consequence of the aging brain or kidneys either through aging of neurons that influence these organs or through failure of the kidneys to eliminate age-associated molecules that occur due to environmental and genetic causes. Additionally, the age-dependent changes in RTE expression may be related to changes in function rather than directly associated with the aging process. The upregulation of RTEs in the mouse brain and kidneys might positively enhance the clearance of P16INK4a-positive cells.