Worms show us how life span can be doubled by booze (taken in tiny doses)

Alf is off to the Eketahuna Club to order a life-extending whisky or three.

He is reacting to news that scientists have proven alcohol can double life-span.

The report that got him going talked of “moderate” levels of alcohol delivering an increase in longevity among test subjects in a recent study.

The booze boost was particularly strong for test subjects put under stressful conditions, with the scientists noting that the addition of small amounts of pure alcohol produced significantly more robust looking subjects, compared to a control “teetotal” group.

Alf hastens to add that the test subjects in this case were worms.

A tiny worm known as Caenorhabditis elegans, to be precise.

This little wriggler is used frequently as a model in aging studies, according to the UCLA biochemists.

The scientists said they find their discovery difficult to explain, according to an account of the research at scienceblog.

“This finding floored us — it’s shocking,” said Steven Clarke, a UCLA professor of chemistry and biochemistry and the senior author of the study, published Jan. 18 in the online journal PLoS ONE, a publication of the Public Library of Science.

In humans, alcohol consumption is generally harmful, Clarke said, and if the worms are given much higher concentrations of ethanol, they experience harmful neurological effects and die, other research has shown.

“We used far lower levels, where it may be beneficial,” said Clarke, who studies the biochemistry of aging.

Clarke’s research team apparently studied thousands of these worms during the first hours of their lives, while they were still in a larval stage.

The worms normally live for about 15 days and can survive with nothing to eat for roughly 10 to 12 days.

“Our finding is that tiny amounts of ethanol can make them survive 20 to 40 days,” Clarke said.

It should be noted that Clarke’s laboratory intended to test the effect of cholesterol on the worms.

We need cholesterol in our membranes, but it can be dangerous in our bloodstream.

So the scientists fed the worms cholesterol, and the worms lived longer, apparently due to the cholesterol.

But the cholesterol had been dissolved in ethanol.

“It’s just a solvent, but it turns out the solvent was having the longevity effect,” Clarke said. “The cholesterol did nothing. We found that not only does ethanol work at a 1-to-1,000 dilution, it works at a 1-to-20,000 dilution. That tiny bit shouldn’t have made any difference, but it turns out it can be so beneficial.”

And how little ethanol is that?

Bugger all.

“The concentrations correspond to a tablespoon of ethanol in a bathtub full of water or the alcohol in one beer diluted into a hundred gallons of water,” Clarke said.

The scientists don’t know why such little ethanol has such an effect on longevity.

They do know that if they increase the ethanol concentration, the worms do not live longer.

“This extremely low level is the maximum that is beneficial for them.”

The scientists found that when they raised the ethanol level by a factor of 80, it did not increase the life span of the worms.

Follow-up research in Clarke’s laboratory is aiming to identify the mechanism that extends the worms’ life span.

Lead author Paola Castro conducted the research as an undergraduate in Clarke’s laboratory before earning a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from UCLA in 2010 and joining the Ph.D. program in bioengineering at UC Santa Cruz.

He was fascinated that the worms are in a stressed developmental stage.

“At high magnifications under the microscope, it was amazing to see how the worms given a little ethanol looked significantly more robust than worms not given ethanol.”

Co-author Shilpi Khare, a former Ph.D. student in UCLA’s biochemistry and molecular biology program and now a postdoctoral fellow at the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation in San Diego, said the physiological effects of high alcohol consumption have been established to be detrimental in humans.

But current research shows low to moderate alcohol consumption, equivalent to one or two glasses of wine or beer a day, results in a reduction in cardiovascular disease and increased longevity.

“While these benefits are fascinating, our understanding of the underlying biochemistry involved in these processes remains in its infancy.”

But it’s a bit discouraging to learn that binge drinking is not recommended for worms, and that if they are given much higher concentrations of ethanol, they experience harmful neurological effects and die.

Moreover, let’s emphasise that the concentrations used by the researchers correspond to a tablespoon of ethanol in a bathtub full of water or the alcohol in one beer diluted into a hundred gallons of water.

This sounds more like a homeopathic remedy than the elixir of life.

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