Jeff Leips, University of Maryland Baltimore County – Why Do We Age

Do we have to age?

Jeff Leips, professor of biological sciences at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, looks into our genes to find out.

Jeff Leips is a professor in the department of biological sciences at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. He completed his PhD at Florida State University working in the field of evolutionary ecology. He did post doctoral research in the field of quantitative genetics working in the laboratory of Dr. Trudy Mackay. Research in his lab is primarily focused on understanding genetic basis of natural variation in aging.

Why Do We Age

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Ever wonder why we age? Why, as we get older, we get slower, weaker and it seems to take longer to recover from sickness or injury?  My lab’s research focuses on this question, specifically trying to identify genes and environmental conditions that interact to influence rates of senescence.

Why focus on genes? While we know that external environmental effects can influence our health as we age, such as diet and exercise, we also know that genes play a central role. How do we know this? Well, the model organism that we work on, the fruitfly, has an average life span of about 60 days.  The Greenland shark can reportedly live 400 years. This difference illustrates that genes must play a key role in aging.

So for the past decade we have been mapping genes that affect life span and the age-related decline in traits such as reproduction, the ability to fight infection, and different indicators of physical abilities such as speed, endurance and strength, using the fruitfly as a model organism. We are finding that many genes influence these traits and are trying to evaluate their independent effects on the process of aging. Perhaps one of the more surprising discoveries is that the genes that contribute to the differences we see among individuals at one age are very different from those affecting these same traits in older individuals. What this means is that if we are designing drugs to target certain genes to restore or maintain the functionality of a trait like the immune response, we might need to target different genes depending on the age of the patient. Understanding the mechanisms giving rise to these age-specific genetic influences will greatly improve our understanding of why we age at different rates and should provide insight into ways to treat the debilitating effects of age that most of us will experience during our lifetimes.

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