Arguing for DNA Methylation Changes to be a Contributing Cause of Aging

Contributing mechanisms of aging form an interconnected network of cause and consequence. For most such mechanisms there is considerable debate over relative importance to the manifestations of aging, as well as over whether a mechanism is upstream or downstream of its peers. The step by step "A causes B causes C causes D" view of aging and age-related disease is very unclear in the middle reaches of the chain of cause and effect, despite a good list of first causes and a growing understanding of proximate causes for many age-related conditions. Progress is slow, as no biochemical mechanism exists in isolation, and it is a challenge to pick apart the complexities of cellular metabolism to find the important relationships.

Thus for DNA methylation, epigenetic changes that alter expression of proteins, at the high level one can argue that this is downstream of forms of damage and dysfunction, a response on the part of cells. One can also argue that some of these changes are harmful and cause further issues. Connecting DNA methylation to causes and consequences is an enormous undertaking, given the number of methylation sites that are now connected to aging as a result of work on epigenetic clocks. Nonetheless, some inroads are being made.

During aging, predefined genes constantly undergo epigenetic modifications and exhibit altered expression in response to internal and external environmental stress. Changes in DNA methylation may occur hundreds of times over the lifespan of an individual in the form of a fully adaptive response. However, in some cases, this methylation acts as a switch for the acceleration of pathological aging, resulting in negative consequences. Thus, global fluctuations in DNA methylation are not only a consequence but also a cause of aging. Understanding the biological mechanisms underlying the observed associations may reveal novel targets for reversing aging-related phenotypes and ultimately prolonging lifespan.

Evidence has emerged showing that decreased autophagic activity is involved in DNA methylation. DNA methylation inhibits autophagy processes in two ways, one of which is the direct modification and silencing of autophagy-related genes by DNA methyltransferases. The promoter regions of Atg5 and LC3 are hypermethylated in aged mice, which suppresses gene expression and disrupts the completion of autophagosomes. Whole-body overexpression of Atg5 results in antiaging phenotypes, extending the median lifespan of mice by 17.2%. Furthermore, researchers have recently shown that DNA methylation inhibitors can rescue phenotypic changes associated with aging by reactivating autophagy-related genes.

Identification of the target genes modified by DNA methylation-related regulatory elements in aging individuals is highly informative to figure out the hormone-like effectors and signal pathways that mediate these alterations as well as related diseases. The interaction among epigenetic regulators during aging should also be highly valued. Further studies should focus on the cross-talk among these epigenetic regulators, such as DNA methylation, RNA methylation, histone methylation, and noncoding RNAs, which will aid in providing a full picture of epigenetics and aging. The results of such studies may pave the way for antiaging interventions as well as treatments for related diseases, enabling human life extension.



One can argue that what we now consider "first causes" of aging ( are no such thing. Rather the "first cause" of aging is a system that cares too little about damage prevention and repair, relative to our personal interest in a longer and healthier life. In general, I think it would be wiser to stop accepting the damage/decline we see as inevitable (which emphasizes late intervention), and look closer at tweaking what has until now been the mysterious inner workings of the complex system that is _allowing_ such damage to occur. The listed "first causes" are the major effects of a system designed/selected to kill you in a timely manner for replacement with a younger version, with your accelerated demise taking about as long as it takes to grow your replacement (10-20 years) -- an orchestrated program that can be disrupted to serve our personal interest in a longer and healthier life.
(btw, where does involution of the thymus, reversible with HGH treatments, fit in the first cause list? That doesn't just happen due to accumulated damage, resulting in gradual cell loss, but rather on a well-defined schedule, and having a dramatic effect on the immune system in later years, ultimately killing you if nothing else gets you first.

Posted by: dtkamp at August 10th, 2020 2:18 PM

Thanks dtkamp for this valuable post.
I think that such a complex system as the human body can count for more than one type of root cause for aging.
So probably there is a part of truth in both approachs : programmed aging and damage accumulation theories.
You mentioned Thymus involution and that is a point to credit to programmed aging. This is a weakness of Aubrey's car analogy, as a human was not born already grown up. So even if one is not adept of the programmed aging school, one shall admit that there is a program to grow the human body then arrest this growth and this is not without consequences on the human body as a system.
On the other way round, I think that epigenetic changes can not be accounted as root cause of all the damage types, as the human body has developped no mechanism against some low rate accumulation damages (e.g. lipofuscin accumulation).
So we should pursue research in both approachs which are to be associated as complementary rather than been opposed.

Posted by: NoDoubt at August 12th, 2020 12:27 AM
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