Species Selection in Comparative Studies of Aging and Antiaging Research

Joao Pedro de Magalhaes

A great range of life histories are observed among mammals. Understanding why different species age at different rates may provide clues about the mechanistic and genetic basis of aging. This work focuses on animal species and their use in comparative studies of aging. Firstly, I debate how to compare aging across different species, including physiological parameters and statistical analyses. Afterwards, a selection of species for use in the comparative biology of aging is suggested. Taking into account that the ultimate aim ofresearch on aging is to benefit people, my selection is largely based on primates. Primates feature such a vast range of aging phenotypes that comparative studies of aging need not employ other more distant species, except perhaps a few rodents. A number of animal species that may serve as models of antiaging strategies are also presented. Examples include species that appear not to age, such as some turtles, and animals featuring regenerative mechanisms absent from humans. Studying the genetic and molecular basis of these traits may have potential implications for antiaging research. Sequencing the genome of these species should then be a priority.


Different species of animals age at radically different paces. A salmon will degenerate and die within days after spawning while some turtles, studied for decades, do not show signs of aging. Among mammals too a great range of life histories are observed. Even under the best laboratory conditions a mouse (Mus musculus) will not live past its 5th birthday, the oldest person on record— Jean Calment—died at age 122, but a bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) may live over 200 years (George et al., 1999). Equally impressive, similar species tend to show great differences in longevity and aging rates. Among primates, for instance, while humans may live over 100 years, dwarf and mouse lemurs do not commonly live more than 20 years and, in their second decade of life, show age-related pathologies typical of elderly people.

Despite great differences in lifespan, the aging pheno-type is remarkably similar across mammals (Finch, 1990; Miller, 1999). For example, aged (8-11 year-old) mouse lemurs (Microcebus murinus) show senile plaques comparable to those witnessed during human cerebral aging (Bons et al., 1992). Consequently, the principle behind the comparative biology of aging is that studying why different species age at different rates may provide clues about the mechanistic basis of aging. Moreover, identifying which genetic factors determine the pace of aging in mammals could open the possibility of delaying aging and/or age-related diseases in people.

The focus of this work is on animal species and their selection for use in comparative studies of aging. Recently, we developed AnAge, an aging-oriented database featuring over 3,000 animals (de Magalhaes et al., 2005a). All species mentioned in this chapter are featured in our database, and hence additional information and references are available in AnAge. My aims in this chapter are to (1) briefly discuss how to compare the aging process between different species; (2) provide a selection of species for comparative studies of aging; and (3) suggest species that may be models of antiaging strategies. Importantly, the purpose of biomedical research is to improve the human condition. The goal of gerontology is to preserve human health and well-being, and extend healthy life. Consequently, the choice of models employed by researchers must always have humans as the ultimate goal, and this is reflected in this work.

Although the focus of this chapter is not on how to perform comparative studies of aging, but rather on which species to employ, the selection process must take potential experiments into consideration. Numerous parameters may be studied between species with different rates of aging: DNA repair rates, cellular stress resistance, antioxidant concentrations, and many others (Finch, 1990). Some of these experiments require captive populations of the species under study, which may not be readily available and might even be impossible to obtain. Although in vivo studies may be highly informative, these may be difficult to conduct in many of the species mentioned herein—such as in bowhead whales. Modern high-throughput technologies like genomics, however,

Handbook of Models for Human Aging

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do not require captive populations or in vivo studies. Furthermore, cellular studies have been proposed as a means to study long-lived species (Austad, 2001; de Magalhaes, 2004), such as stem cells differentiating in culture. Therefore, intact organism studies may not be necessary in comparative biology, particularly since I predict that comparative genomics will become a major tool for comparative studies of aging (de Magalhaes and Toussaint, 2004). My choice of species hence does not take into account potential husbandry costs and difficulties.

Measures for Comparing Aging

In this work, lifespan is defined as the period of time in which the life events of a species typically occur. So far, I have been mostly referring to maximum lifespan (tmax) as a means to compare aging among different species. There are multiple problems, however, in using tmax as an estimate of aging. For example, feral animal populations may have their tmax limited by predation, accidents, or starvation. Even differences in tmax in captivity may reflect husbandry difficulties, and several species are impossible to maintain in captivity. Therefore, and since tmax is not the only way of comparing aging, it is worthwhile to consider how aging rates can be compared across species before selecting them. After all, since aging is one of the variables under study in comparative studies of aging, we must at least roughly quantify the rate of aging if we are to design appropriate experiments. As an example, I will examine the closest human relative, chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). Chimpanzees live a maximum of 73 years while humans live 122 years, so tmax suggests that chimpanzees age about twice as fast as humans.

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