A tiny fish helps solve how genes influence longevity

Photograph of the Nothobranchiius furzeri killifish, by Ugua
Photograph of the Nothobranchiius furzeri killifish, by Ugua

A tiny, short-lived fish may help solve one of the largest mysteries: how do genes influence longevity?

The African turquoise killifish has evolved as the shortest-lived known vertebrate — driven by its survival in the hot climate of Mozambique and Zimbabwe in seasonal ponds that only exist for a few months during the wet season. This compressed life span makes the killifish an ideal organism for genetic studies on aging and longevity.

To help researchers study this intriguing animal model, Stanford geneticist Anne Brunet, PhD, and her colleagues have now fully mapped the genome of the African turquoise killifish. Their initial insights into the genetic determinants of the killifish’s life span were published today in Cell.

Brunet’s team sequenced short segments of the killifish DNA and then assembled them using specialized software to create a complete map of the turquoise killifish genome.

Brunet explains in a news release:

The range of life spans seen in nature is truly astonishing, and really we have very little insight into how this has evolved or how this works. By having the genome of this fish and comparing it to other species, we start seeing differences that could underlie life span differences both between species and also within a species.

In the article, the researchers report on their initial study of genes unique to the short-lived killifish, which were identified by comparison to longer-lived species, such as killifish that were mated with longer-lived fish. Surprisingly, they found that the genes associated with life span differences between various killifish strains are clustered on the sex chromosomes, so its short life span likely co-evolved with sex determination. They also identified some unusual aging genes in both killifish and other long-lived fish, raising the question of what role these aging genes play in the determination of life span.

To uncover all of the killifish’s traits, Brunet’s group will have help: They have created a user-friendly website, which provides other researchers with free access to the data.

Brunet explained in the news release, “They can go to our website, enter their favorite gene of interest, and then zoom in on the killifish equivalent.”

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

Author: Jennifer Huber

As a Ph.D. physicist and research scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, I gained extensive experience in medical imaging and technical writing. Now, I am a full-time freelance science writer, editor and science-writing instructor. I've lived in the San Francisco Bay Area most of my life and I frequently enjoy the eclectic cultural, culinary and outdoor activities available in the area.

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