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Why do people get older? Why do they die? Is there life without aging process? These and similar questions have fascinated scientists for centuries, and now researchers from Germany's Kiel accidentally came very close to the answers to these questions, reports Science Daily portal. Specifically, studying the longevity of polyp hydra, scientists are completely unexpectedly found a link with aging in humans.
Research conducted by joint efforts of scientists from the University of Kiel and the University Medical Center Schleswig-Holstein (UKSH) was published in the journal Proceedings of The National Academy of Science (PNAS).

Hydra Polyp Is Immortal

This tiny polyp lives in deep water and, according to current knowledge, it shows no signs of aging, which makes him literally immortal. Despite the expectations, behind the immortal life of this organism is actually pretty simple biological explanation - hydra are asexual organisms that reproduce by the process of "budding". It is a relatively simple process in which an individual develops so called buds that remain attached to the mother until the moment when they become quite mature. Being asexual, buds are actually clones of mother, so, once separated they transfer always the same genetic material. The basic assumption of this form of reproduction is that each polyp contains stem cells capable of virtually unlimited proliferation. Without these cells, these organisms would no longer be able to breed. Because of its longevity, Hydra was the subject of many studies during recent years, but this is the first time that an association was found between polyps immortality and aging in humans.

When people get older, an increasing number of stem cells lose their ability to replicate, and thus the ability to produce new cells. When a specific tissue is old enough, it can not be regenerated, which is the main reason, for example, for muscle atrophy in the elderly. Also, older people often feel weakness because the aging process affects their heart muscles. If in some way, we had an impact on slowing down these side effects of aging, people would be able to feel better physically much longer than is now common. The study of tissues in organisms that are full of active stem cells during entire life, may provide us with a better insight into the aging of stem cells in general. Of course, the ultimate goal of this type of research is to understand the aging process in order to change it in some way.

FOXO Genes

"To our great surprise, the search for genes that enable hydra to be immortal has brought us to the so-called FOXO genes," says Anna-Maree Bohm, a student in the doctoral study and co-author of the article in which the results of research are presented. FOXO gene exists in all animals and humans, and scientists noticed it long ago. However, until now there was nothing known about why older people have less stem cells that are, in addition, less active, which biochemical mechanisms are associated with this process, and what role does FOXO gene have in aging process. In order to find this gene which is clearly important, the researchers extracted stem cells from hydra and mapped all of their genes.

The research team from University in Kiel studied the FOXO gene in several different genetically modified polyps - hydra with normal FOXO gene, with inactive FOXO gene, and with enhanced FOXO gene. Based on several experiments, the scientists were able to prove that organisms without FOXO genes have much less stem cells than the other organisms. Interestingly, drastic changes in the immune system were observed in these organisms. "Drastic changes are similar to those of hydra, and are often observed in the elderly," explains Philip Rosenstiel from the Institute for Clinical Molecular Biology, UKSH, who, along with his team of experts, participated in a particular study.

"Our research team has shown that there is a direct link between FOXO genes and the aging process. FOXO gene is especially active in people who have suffered over one hundred years old and it was our only additional evidence that this gene plays an important role in the aging process, not only hydrated, but also in people, "says Thomas with Bosch the Institute for Zoology at the University of Kiel, senior author of the study.

However, currently there is no way to check this hypothesis indeed, since that would require such an undertaking, as genetic manipulations with people, the limit that science has still not exceed. Nevertheless, Bosch points out that the results of this research are a big step forward in understanding how and why people get older. Since further studies in humans are not possible, scientists will in the near future be devoted to the study of ways in which FOXO gene acts by studying the hydra polyps.