July 23, 2015

Google is Trying to Figure Out Why We Age

A photograph of Google CEO Larry Page in front of a large screen depicting a map of the world.
Courtesy of: Reuters

By Joseph A.

Aging really isn’t fun. Sure, we gain knowledge and wisdom over time, but we also start losing the spring in our step, and nobody seems to know why. 

For years, scientists have been struggling to figure out what our own DNA can tell us about how and why we age. Now, it appears that researchers may be getting closer to working with specific genes to potentially help people live longer. 

In a new partnership that will try to sort through genetic information, the genealogy company Ancestry, which helps you track your family history and has recently launched a genetics branch, AncestryDNA, will work with Google's Calico, a biotechnology company devoted to learning how to extend the average human lifespan. 
Calico strives to combat aging, but they haven't been incredibly clear about what that means at  this point.

Their recent efforts include teaming up with universities and drug companies that focus on finding cures and treatments for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and ALS. In this new partnership with Ancestry.com, Calico will gain access to more than one million sets of DNA compiled by the website.

“The Calico science team decided, what if we used a data set like what Ancestry.com has to identify people who have a longer-than-expected lifespan in their family?” stated Ken Chahine, the executive vice president and general manager of DNA and health at Calico.

In other words, they hope to use Ancestry's data to see which families tend to live longer.

How Genetics can Potentially Extend Our Lives

Past research has linked specific personality traits, like conscientiousness and extroversion, to a longer life expectancy, but the research into genetics has been less specific. So far, studies have suggested that some aspects of longevity run in families: People who live decades longer than the average lifespan are possibly inheriting certain genes that give them a boost against some forms of disease, while others are predisposed to get those diseases.

But the genetic markers are just one aspect of an increased lifespan, with environment and lifestyle choices also likely playing important roles.

Ancestry and DNA Lead to Health?

AncestryDNA offers $99 DNA testing kits that give consumers a look into where their ancestors originally migrated from, which goes as far back as ten generations. The company processes the DNA you send in (by spitting in a tube) and looks for matches in its existing database. 

Ancestry has had a great month so far: Last week, the company hit one million DNA samples!  They’ve also announced the move to start AncestryHealth, a tool that can track a particular family’s health history. Instead of going back to check with your mom about what disease your great-uncle had, the company says the health tool would compile all of that information for you in a way that's easy to comprehend.

While good news for identifying a potential distant relative, the new feature  could also be helpful for health research purposes. Both academics and corporations are especially interested in finding out how to use what we know about our genes to develop more precise drugs. 

Some genetically-minded drugs have already helped people with cystic fibrosis in recent years. Researchers are now able to pinpoint certain mutations that responded to the drug and adjust accordingly.

This is the first time AncestryDNA has partnered with researchers, but is it believed other deals are in the works. 

Regardless, this appears to be a huge step towards a bright future of fighting disease and extending the lives of humans all over the world.

What do you think about this new project? Would you be interested in learning more about your family’s health history? Let us know in the comments below!

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