Reactive Oxygen compounds = Aging
Scientists have already uncovered clear links between reactive oxygen compounds and aging. Fruit flies genetically engineered to produce high levels of enzymes that destroy reactive oxygen species lived almost 50 percent longer than normal flies. The same enzymes also made the microscopic roundworm C. elegans live significantly longer than normal.
Long-lived flies and worms are one thing, but are reactive oxygen species a factor in human aging as well? The answer is that we don't know yet. Large-scale clinical studies are under way to examine the link between aging and antioxidants—compounds, such as vitamins E and C, found in fruits and vegetables as well as within our own bodies. Antioxidants are less potent than the enzymes that quash reactive oxygen species, but like the enzymes, they can disarm dangerous reactive oxygen compounds.
Vividly colored fruits and vegetables such as these are rich in antioxidants. Although their role in the aging process is still unknown, antioxidants are believed to reduce the risk of certain cancers.
Thieving OxygenTake a deep breath. Oxygen in the air you just breathed entered your lungs, passed into the tiny blood vessels that line them, and then went on a wild ride through the creeks, rivers, and cascades of your bloodstream. Thanks to your rich network of blood vessels, oxygen gets carried to every cell in every corner of your body. Once delivered to a cell, oxygen heads for the mitochondria, where it slurps up the electrons coming off the end of the energy-production assembly line. Mitochondria need oxygen to generate cellular energy, and humans need a constant supply of that energy to survive. That's why people die within a few minutes if deprived of oxygen.
But oxygen has a darker side, and it has attracted the attention of scientists who study aging. Normally, an oxygen molecule (O2) absorbs four electrons and is eventually safely converted into water. But if an oxygen molecule only takes up one or two electrons, the result is one of a group of highly unstable molecules called reactive oxygen species that can damage many kinds of biological molecules by stealing their electrons. These renegade oxygen-containing species can mutate your genes, damage the lipids that make up your cellular membranes, and break the proteins that do much of the cell's work, thereby causing cellular injury in multiple and overlapping ways.
Death of a Cell
Apoptosis is so carefully planned out that it is often called programmed cell death. During apoptosis, the cell shrinks and pulls away from its neighbors. Then, the surface of the cell appears to boil, with fragments breaking away and escaping like bubbles from a pot of boiling water. The DNA in the nucleus condenses and breaks into regular-sized fragments, and soon the nucleus itself, followed by the entire cell, disintegrates. A cellular cleanup crew rapidly mops up the remains.
Cells come primed for apoptosis, equipped with the instructions and instruments necessary for their own self-destruction. They keep these tools carefully tucked away, like a set of sheathed knives, until some signal—either from within or outside the cell—triggers their release. This initiates a cascade of carefully coordinated events that culminate in the efficient, pain-free excision of unneeded cells.
There is another kind of cell death, called necrosis, that is unplanned. Necrosis can result from a sudden traumatic injury, infection, or exposure to a toxic chemical. During necrosis, the cell's outer membrane loses its ability to control the flow of liquid into and out of the cell. The cell swells up and eventually bursts, releasing its contents into the surrounding tissue. A cleanup crew composed of immune cells then moves in and mops up the mess, but the chemicals the cells use cause the area to become inflamed and sensitive. Think of the redness and pain in your finger after you accidentally touch a hot stove.
Many different kinds of injuries can cause cells to die via necrosis. It's what happens to heart cells during a heart attack, to cells in severely frostbitten fingers and toes, and to lung cells during a bout of pneumonia.
Cells That Never Die Can Kill You
Nonetheless, scientists still have high hopes for harnessing telomerase. For instance, the enzyme could be used as a tool for diagnosing cancer, alerting doctors to the presence of a malignancy. Another possibility is to use chemicals that block telomerase to put the brakes on cell division in cancer cells. The search for such chemicals is on, and several candidates already have shown promise in preliminary studies.
According to most scientists, aging is caused by the interplay of many factors, such as reactive oxygen species, DNA mutations, and cellular retirement. Unfortunately, as a result, there is probably no such thing as a simple anti-aging remedy.
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