With many developed countries, including the UK, being described as having ageing populations (more people over 60 than under 16), it is imperative to identify a means to increase the healthy lifespan of the population by delaying the onset of age-associated illnesses. Recently, long-lived mutant worms and mice were discovered that show an increased resistance to a variety of stresses, making them less likely to succumb to tumours, neurological disorders and other age-associated illnesses. Thus, elucidating the mechanism of ageing itself and understanding the cellular changes accompanying it will not only improve our quality of life, but also further our knowledge of disease-development.
Ageing was initially believed to be a haphazard process based on early observations of the progressive, seemingly disorganised deterioration of tissues and vital body functions in aged individuals. However, it is now known to be a regulated biological process controlled by multiple signalling pathways. Our knowledge of these ‘ageing pathways’ comes primarily from genetic studies in model organisms, the best characterised of which is the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans. Worms are particularly suited to ageing studies: being hermaphrodites, they can be clonally propagated and isogenic worm lines can be examined; they have a short reproductive cycle; their normal lifespan is no more than 3 weeks; and they are amenable to advanced forward/reverse genetics procedures.
My research focuses on using C elegans to address the fundamental question: What really is ageing? I use quantitative proteomics strategies set up by the Lamond & Gartner labs to measure changes in protein levels and dynamics – sub-cellular localization, turnover, post-translational modifications – occurring during the course of ageing in C elegans. I believe this in-depth proteome analysis will help me characterise the molecular changes accompanying ageing; I hope to use this information to improve health and quality of life in the elderly.
The Wellcome Trust funds my research through the award of a Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellowship. This allows me to merge the expertise of the Kenyon Lab in San Francisco (Cynthia Kenyon is one of the pioneers of research into ageing – her studies continue to redefine the field and shed insight into the genetics of ageing) with that of the Lamond and Gartner Labs in Dundee.