If humans living for 1,000 years seems like a complete stretch, aging expert João Pedro de Magalhães will do you one better: how about humans living for 20,000 years?
The professor of molecular biogerontology at the Institute of Inflammation and Ageing at the University of Birmingham in England talked with Scientific American about the tools needed to really impact human aging. And he isn’t focused on gaining a few years here or there—he wants to add thousands of years to a human lifespan.
All it takes, he believes, is new technology—yet to be created—that can eliminate aging at the cellular level, repair DNA, and reprogram cells for a drastically different aging process. “My hypothesis is that we have a very complicated set of computerlike programs in our DNA that turn us into an adult human being,” he told Scientific American. “But maybe some of these same programs, as they continue into later life, become detrimental.”
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Changing those programs may provide an answer.
Magalhães says that the key isn’t so much finding the next drug—although, certainly, medicine has improved lifespans significantly and helped eliminate some leading causes of death. He believes that the medical intervention necessary for these extremely long lives will require finding a way to eliminate aging at the cellular level by reprograming cells and genes critical to the aging process.
His research has so far focused on animals seemingly outperforming similar species. These include such animals as the bowhead whale—with its 200-year lifespan—and the naked mole rat—which can live 30 years, while similar rodents live just a few.
“Various long-lived animals, such as humans, whales, and elephants all have to cope with the same issues, such as cancer, but they use different molecular tricks to achieve their longevity,” Magalhães said. “With bowhead whales, they seem to have much better DNA repair.” He cites the P53 gene and its cancer suppression capabilities as important to this long lifespan, and says that there may be other genes we need to target.
While adding in new drugs—rapamycin has shown to lengthen the life of animals as much as 15 percent—has an impact, achieving the wild life spans of 1,000 to 20,000 years would require cells that don’t age. To figure out how to stop the cellular aging process in its tracks, humans need to be a bit more like a naked mole rat.
“In terms of caner resistance and probably overall aging as well, it’s their ability to respond to and repair DNA damage,” he said, adding he believes aging is more a software problem than a hardware problem.
Magalhães believes, at least in theory, that humans can have radical interventions that rewrite genetic software and redesign human biology “to delay or even reverse aging. In practice, it is difficult, but in theory, I think there’s a huge potential.”
By huge, he means pretty much as huge as you can imagine. “I actually did some calculations years ago and found that if we could cure human aging, average human life span would be more than 1,000 years,” he tells Scientific American. “Maximum life span, barring accidents and violent death, could be as long as 20,000 years.”
All it takes, Magalhães admits, is redesigning our biology to eliminate cancer and evade the detrimental actions of our genetic code. He thinks we’ll get there one day. We’ll just have to wait and see if he’s right.
Tim Newcomb is a journalist based in the Pacific Northwest. He covers stadiums, sneakers, gear, infrastructure, and more for a variety of publications, including Popular Mechanics. His favorite interviews have included sit-downs with Roger Federer in Switzerland, Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles, and Tinker Hatfield in Portland.