George Eberhardt turned 107 last month, and scientists would love to know how he and other older folks like him have made it that far. So he's going to hand over some of his DNA.
He's one of 100 centenarians taking part in a project announced this week that will examine some of the oldest citizens with one of the newest scientific tools – whole-genome sequencing, the deciphering of a person's complete collection of DNA.
Scientists think DNA from very old healthy people could offer clues to how they have lived so long. And that could one day lead to medicines to help the rest of us stay disease-free longer.
By the time you reach, say, 105, “it's very hard to get there without some genetic advantages,” says Thomas Perls, a geriatrics expert at Boston University. Dr. Perls is helping to find centenarians for the Archon Genomics X Prize competition. The X Prize Foundation, best known for a spaceflight competition, is offering a prize of $10-million (U.S.) to researchers who decipher the complete DNA code from 100 people older than 100. The contest will be judged on accuracy, completeness and the speed and cost of sequencing.
Genome pioneer Craig Venter says the centenarian project is just a first step in revealing the genetic secrets of a long and healthy life.
“We need 10,000 genomes, not 100, to start to understand the link between genetics, disease and wellness,” said Dr. Venter, who co-chairs the X Prize contest.
Mr. Eberhardt, of Chester, N.J., played and taught tennis until he was 94. He said he's participating in the X Prize project because he's interested in science and technology. It's not clear his genes will reveal much. Nobody else in his extended family reached 100, and he thinks only a couple reached 90, he said in a telephone interview.
So why does he think he lived so long? He credits 70 years of marriage to his wife, Marie. She in turn cites his “intense interest in so many things” over a lifetime, from building radios as a child to a career in electronics research.
But scientists believe there's more to it, and they want to use genome sequencing to investigate. Dr. Richard Cawthon of the University of Utah, who is seeking longevity genes by other means, says it may turn up genetic features that protect against multiple diseases or that slow the process of aging in general.
Protective features of a centenarian's DNA can even overcome less-than-ideal lifestyles, says Nir Barzilai of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. His own study of how centenarians live found that “as a group, they haven't done the right things.”
Many in the group he studied were obese or overweight. Many were smokers, and few exercised or followed a vegetarian diet. His oldest participant, who died this month just short of her 110th birthday, smoked for 95 years.
“She had genes that protected her against the environment,” Dr. Barzilai said. One of her sisters died at 102, and one of her brothers is 105 and still manages a hedge fund.
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