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Searching for Methuselah

Longevityís secrets may be lurking in the wild

February 2005

by Will Sansom

WANTED: Researcher to study how some animals live so long in protected environments. Candidate should have experience traveling the world and bringing back different species. Taming lions and saving actresses on movie sets is strictly optional. Contact: Sam and Ann Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

If anyone could answer the above advertisement, it would be Steven N. Austad, Ph.D. A professor of cellular and structural biology at the Health Science Center since summer 2004, Dr. Austad is a comparative biologist and one of todayís leaders in the field of aging research. He is an important member of the Health Science Centerís nationally known Barshop Institute.

"My niche is to learn about aging by looking at animals that are nontraditional," Dr. Austad says. "Instead of studying lab mice, I study mice from nature. I look at bats and birds and other creatures chosen not because there is a lot of biological science background about them but because of what they can teach us about aging."

  An opossum with cataracts
Dr. Steven Austud studied this opossum suffering from cataracts. It was the opossum that first sparked his interest in studying the aging process in wild animals.

Dr. Austad mentions a bat the size of a mouse that can live 30 years in the wild. "The Methuselahs are bats and birds," he says, referring to the man in Genesis who lived a record 969 years. "People donít tend to realize how long birds live. A mouse-sized bird can live 20 years. Birds are interesting because their biology, high body temperature and metabolic rate would cause you to think they are short lived. But they are long lived, so it begs the question: Whatís going on in their cells to enable them to do this?"

The chances that he would become a scientist trying to answer such a question might have seemed remote in 1969, the year he received his English literature degree from UCLA. A friend got him a job in Hollywood. Later, during preparations for the movie "Roar," he pulled actress Melanie Griffithís head out of the mouth of a lion that had knocked her down. He was working at a location owned by Griffithís mother, actress Tippi Hedren, who still runs a big cat refuge.

But science has a way of burrowing its way into oneís psyche. In the 1970s Dr. Austad studied for his Ph.D., which he received from Purdue in 1981. On islands off the coast of Georgia, he studied a group of opossums that age more slowly than their counterparts on the mainland. He also found mice in the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia and brought them back for the purpose of comparing them with mice bred in laboratories.

"The reason we think animals from tropical islands might be particularly interesting is that the islands have few predators and milder climates and, as a consequence, the animals basically live in very safe environments," Dr. Austad says. "We think these animals have the natural tools to live longer, such as stronger immune systems and hearts."

Edward Masoro, Ph.D., professor and chair emeritus of physiology at the Health Science Center and a leading researcher of calorie restriction and aging, calls Dr. Austad "the foremost comparative biologist in the field of biological gerontology." He says Dr. Austadís thinking about protective environments is challenging long-held ideas about aging, particularly the theory that slower metabolic rate is the key to longer life. Long-term calorie restriction, which in the lab has been shown to retard aging in animals, does not reduce metabolic rate, Dr. Masoro notes.

Barshop Institute Director Arlan Richardson, Ph.D., professor of cellular and structural biology at the Health Science Center and career scientist with the South Texas Veterans Health Care System, says Dr. Austadís research is "the first direct proof" that organisms in safe environments are equipped to live longer and age more slowly. "Steve argues that nature has had a greater impact on life span than caloric restriction," Dr. Richardson says. "It should be noted that he was the first person to argue effectively for studying these unique long-lived species to understand how to retard aging."

George Martin, M.D., professor emeritus of pathology at the University of Washington and a leading researcher of aging, says Dr. Austadís work has revealed the risk of conducting aging research only in a "very small sample of the biosphere," mostly represented by yeast, roundworms, fruit flies and mice. "Steve Austad has been enormously influential in bringing limitations of this approach to the forefront," Dr. Martin says.

Dr. Austad has done field work on cuscuses (arboreal marsupials) in Papua New Guinea and opossums and wrens in Venezuela, and has reported his studies in many scientific articles. He also has written popular scientific books for general audiences. In 1997, John Wiley & Sons published his book "Why We Age: What Science Is Discovering about the Bodyís Journey Through Life." One of the grandest moments of his career occurred in 2003, when he received the Robert W. Kleemeier Award for Outstanding Research from the Gerontological Society of America. Incidentally, the 2004 winner was James R.Smith, Ph.D., also of the Health Science Center.

Dr. Austad has served on the faculties of Purdue, New Mexico, Harvard, Washington and most recently the University of Idaho. The chance to join Dr. Richardson, Dr. Smith and the impressive team of investigators at the Barshop Institute finally proved too much for Dr. Austad to resist. "I was not at all looking to leave Idaho," he says, "but the aging program at the Health Science Center is quite probably the finest in the world. It was difficult to pass up the chance to work with so many talented colleagues here who are interested in the same thing."

Chances are good that, just like his colleagues, the whole world is interested in what Dr. Austad is studying, because what he learns about long-lived species in the wild will surely translate to greater understanding about the way all of us age, as well.

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