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Blue death

29 Jul, 2010

I’m going to die. Like it or not, I’m ageing and one day the great Grim Reaper is going to shut me down, pull the plug, turn out the lights.

I used to be terrified of death. One abiding childhood memory I have is when I realised that my Grandfather, a lovely gentle man, had died. So began hours of screaming and air punching while my poor mother tried to console me before I dehydrated completely.

I’m no longer afraid of ageing and its good friend, death. Science has provided me with an elegant window on this mysterious mechanism that is ageing, a gradual slipping away as time ticks and tocks towards an inexorable organic halt.

One of the new strategic challenges for the Wellcome Trust is investigating development, ageing and chronic disease. For me, this means I get to make films about ageing – and it’s deeply fascinating stuff.

UCL’s Dr David Gems and his student, Cassandra Coburn, allowed me into their world for a brief moment so that we could discuss this rapidly developing field. The first thing that throws you is how nonchalant David is when discussing his field – “it’s a (genetic) trait, like any other,” he told me, comparing the gradual fading of life to eye colour. The significance of this titbit is clear; if the genetic underpinnings of the ageing process can be identified, then ageing itself can be controlled.

This information was strangely unsettling. Could something as magical and intangible as the ageing process really amount to little more than a few stretches of genetic code? Using tiny nematode worms as their biological test tubes, the answer would appear to be ‘yes’. Scientists have been able to extend their lifespans 10 fold with the appropriate genetic tweaks.

However, Cassandra was at hand to reintroduce the mystery with her ‘blue death’. Purely by chance (as is the case with many breakthroughs), her research had uncovered a strange phenomenon: expose a nematode to ultraviolet light and, gradually, small patches of bright blue fluorescence begin to form within the worm. This, she informs me, is not a biomarker for ageing (as was believed) but a marker for death itself – the more blue you see, the closer death is for the worm.

I witnessed this amazing effect firsthand. A worm was exposed to UV light as we watched it wriggle around on a monitor in the darkness. Over the next few minutes, patches of blue light appeared, gradually intensifying in parallel with the worm’s movement becoming more uncertain. A humbling silence engulfed us as Cassandra and myself sat and watched the life ebb from this tiny creature. At last, the bright, electric blue worm, stuttered to a complete stop and it was over.

The hunt for the cause of this phenomenon is ongoing. Such research may bring a day when many of the worst age-related illnesses we know, from heart disease to cancer, could largely be eradicated.

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