From Hydra to Humans - Insights into molecular mechanisms of aging and longevity -
Human aging is characterized by progressive functional decline that coincides with both increased morbidity and mortality. Aging affects every human being and only few individuals achieve longevity, a very special phenotype marked by extraordinary healthy aging. This thesis consists of three chapters; each one is devoted to a separate project that contributes to the growing body of knowledge about aging and longevity. The work required the compilation, management and analysis of diverse big data sets and the application of cutting-edge statistical and computational methods. Chapter 1 - A functional genomics study was conducted in the potentially immortal freshwater polyp Hydra using body part-specific microarray and RNA sequencing data. The results revealed gene expression patterns that allow boundary maintenance during Hydra’s continuous cell proliferation and tissue self-renewal. Furthermore, this study provided evidence for de-acetylation as a key mechanism underlying compartmentalization. Surprisingly, FoxO, which is known to substantially drive developmental processes and stem cell renewal in Hydra, did not seem to be affected by the acetylation status. Chapter 2 - Long-lived individuals (LLI, >95 years of age) epitomize the healthy aging phenotype and are thought to carry beneficial genetic variants that predispose to human longevity. Despite extensive research efforts, only few of these genetic factors in LLI have been identified so far. In contrast to previous investigations which mainly focused on intronic variants, a genome-wide exome-based case-control study was performed. DNA samples of more than 1,200 German LLI, including 599 centenarians (≥100 years), and about 6,900 younger controls were used for single-variant and gene-based association analyses that yielded two new candidate longevity genes, fructosamine 3 kinase related protein (FN3KRP) and phosphoglycolate phosphatase (PGP). FN3KRP functions in the deglycation of proteins to restore their function, while PGP via controlling glycerol-3-phosphate levels affects both glucose and fat metabolism. Given the biological functions of the genes, their longevity-associations appear very plausible. Chapter 3 - In recent years, the intestinal microbiome (GM) has increasingly gained attention in aging and longevity research. A 16S rRNA microbiome study was conducted using 1301 stool samples of healthy individuals (age range: 19 - 104 years) that were drawn from three cohorts. The aim was to investigate potential associations among GM composition, host genetics and environmental factors during aging. The GM composition changed with age, showing an increase of opportunistic pathogens that may generate an inflammatory environment in the gut. Age explained only ~1% of the inter-individual variation, whereas anthropometric measures, genetic background and dietary patterns together explained 20%. Strikingly, clear GM population stratification in terms of four enterotype-like clusters was observed, which were predominantly associated with dietary patterns. The correction for these clusters was shown to increase the comparability of findings from the different cohorts. In addition, the LLI showed a specific gut microbial pattern, which is in line with previously published reports. The present work shows that a thorough bioinformatics expertise helps to address the complexity of the two phenotypes aging and longevity. One highlight of the thesis is the discovery of two new candidate longevity loci that, in view of the limited output of previous study approaches, enlarge the existing database.