Steven Austad talks about aging and preserving human health
“Fall in love with some activity – and do it.”
- Richard Feynman
Nov. 7th, 2019
30th Annual Graduate Research Symposium
Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine
Nov. 19th 2019
International Perspectives on Geroscience
Puerto Veras, Chile
I am a scientist/writer. Look for my new book, Methuselah's Zoo, coming soon. An assortment of my newspaper columns can be found below.
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Dogs or mice?
The possum, like the North American opossum, only have a short lifespan – they live for between 2 to 4 years.
So a New York City cab driver, a newspaper reporter and a big cat trainer walk into an interview with Longevity.Technology…
From a UCLA English Literature grad, to a taxi driver, reporter, then onto a wild animal trainer for TV and film, the arc of Dr Steven Austad’s picaresque career trajectory eventually finds its inflection point at a PhD in Biological Sciences at Purdue University.
After earning his PhD, Austad began a three-decade career in evolutionary and zoological research. It was in the late 1980s, while conducting field-work on opossums near Sapelo Island, that he discovered marked differences (of 25%) in the forest-dwelling marsupial’s lifespan depending on its exposure to predators.
This, and the fact that opossums lived aberrantly shorter lives in comparison to animals of a similar size (up to a slender two years of age in the wild and four in captivity) drove Austad to investigate the various evolutionary strategies animal biologies have adapted to fend off the symptoms of age-related decline. As examples, Quahog clams (whose ingenious ability to prevent their proteins unfolding can see them living for more than 500 years) and freshwater creatures called hydra (who, given the right environment, can express genes that make them effectively immortal) feature prominently in Austad’s research.
Just as many anti-aging therapies are, for the first time, attempting the translational leap from mice to humans there is a growing awareness in the aging community of the need for other models. With this in mind we spoke to Austad — now a distinguished professor and department chair at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Department of Biology, as well as the scientific director of the American Federation for Aging Research (AFAR) — about his insights into new and old animal models for aging, rapamycin, the TAME trial, and his ‘lifespan bet’ with fellow gerontologist Stuart Olshanky.
Tattletale ancestors: Lessons from our DNA
A frame from a video explaining how DNA copies itself during cellular division in a process that keeps us alive and passes heredity to the next generation. (DNA Learning Center)
I recently sent off a tube of saliva containing enough of my DNA for one of those companies to tell me about my ancestry. I thought I knew my ancestry pretty well and it turns out that I did. The only surprise was that I have more Neanderthal genes - genes, that is, from a species that died out around 35,000 years ago -- than 99.9% of living people. Apparently, some of my distant ancestors were not particularly discriminating about their choice of mates. I also discovered a couple of previously unknown second cousins.
Police in California recently used similar techniques to those the company used to discover my ancestry to apprehend a vicious serial killer, 32 years after his last known crime. I've been critical of what passes for science in many crime labs, but the science that caught this murderer was -- to use an overused phrase -- game-changing.
The first conviction for, as well as the first exoneration from, serious crimes using DNA evidence occurred more than thirty years ago. Two teenage girls had been savagely raped and murdered in separate incidents just outside a small English village. Police were certain both were done by the same person who was thought to live in the village. They initially arrested a mentally-deficient 17-year-old, who confessed to the second murder but not the first. To confirm that he had committed both crimes police contacted a young geneticist, Alec Jeffreys - now Sir Alec Jeffries - whose research lab was at the nearby University of Leicester. Jeffreys had recently claimed that he could identify individual people from a DNA sample.