Researchers are using worms to figure out how humans can live longer

If we could treat aging as a disease, we'd also be addressing conditions that typically affect older communities like cardiovascular issues and cancer, say experts.

Chris Arnold 4 minute read February 24, 2022
Caenorhabditis elegans

C. elegans are commonly referred to as roundworms. GETTY

Researchers at Louisiana State University (LSU) are making helping worms gain weight to see if humans can live longer. 

The team at LSU fed elegans, commonly referred to as roundworms, with a plant extract that resulted in better metabolic health, while making them larger. The research was published in The Journals of Gerontology.

The worms ate the plant extract and lived an average of 40 per cent longer than typical elegans, and there is reason to believe that similar results could be found in humans. 

‘Worms only live about three weeks’

“The reason this study made so much sense to do in worms is because worms live for only about three weeks, so in a month or two, we had definite results,” Bhaswati Ghosh, LSU student and the lead author of the study said in a statement.

The plant extract is specifically made from the leaves of a type of wormwood found in Asia. Researchers fed the extract to the worms in various doses. The worms that took the extract showed an almost immediate improvement to their metabolic health, grew bigger — and had their movement slowed down too since the increased mass made it difficult to move around. 

But the added weight was not a hindrance on the worms, in fact the researchers found the worms to be more resilient to stress as the plant used — artemisia scoparia — helps convert unhealthy fat into healthy fat. 

“Until recently, it wasn’t really known how aging could be modified through diet, or how core metabolic signalling pathways influence longevity,” Adam Bohnert, assistant professor of life sciences at LSU, and one of the leads on the study, said. “What we’ve been able to show is that a natural extract can come in and influence these pathways in much the same way a genetic mutation would.” 

Bonhert says the discovery gives the team of researchers a therapeutic standpoint. 

“We know age is the primary risk factor for many diseases, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease, but if you think of aging as a treatable disease, you can actually treat many diseases at once,” he said.

The worms that lived the longest were fed the specialized plant extract just as they reached adulthood, but they were not the only group that benefited from the plant’s life-extending powers. Worms treated with the extract for the first time in their equivalent of middle age were still found to live as much as 20 per cent longer than expected. 

Despite the success seen with worms, the news release states that there is no recommendation for humans to take artemisia scoparia in any form, or any indication of what a safe and effective dosage could be. 

Researchers also suggest that just because the organism has a larger body than it would naturally, it does not mean it is unhealthy. 

“Usually people think of fat as ‘bad,’ but in these cases, it seems good, and actually pro-longevity,” Bohnert said. “Artemisia scoparia could have some exciting potential as a dietary supplement.” 

Ghosh added that the fact that an organism is slow and in a larger body does not qualify it for poor health, suggesting the phenotypes — observable traits — should be taken into account in the full context of the being’s parameters, including its lifespan. 

Elegans are a transparent organism that is only about one millimetre long and primarily live in moist soil. They can be found all over the world. Typically, when specialized plant extract is not available, the tiny worm lives on microorganisms such as bacteria that can be derived from rotting fruit, according to Simon Fraser University.

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