Scientists have surprisingly discovered that a mere trace of alcohol doubles the lifespan of a tiny worm that has become a workhorse in biochemistry laboratories around the world.
The dramatic finding by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, suggests that the availability of ethanol -- the type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages -- may play an important role in delaying the aging process, at least in the life of C. elegans, a benign worm that is less than .04 of an inch long.
The discovery was described as "shocking" by biochemist Steven Clarke, senior author of a study published in PLoS One, a peer-reviewed journal published by the Public Library of Science.
Clarke, who described the research with the almost giddy excitement of a man who is pursuing a great scientific adventure, admits he doesn't know why alcohol would have such a dramatic increase in the worm's lifespan, but he's certain of one thing -- it didn't take a lot of booze to trip whatever makes this tiny critter live so long.
The amount that worked best was roughly equivalent to a tablespoon of ethanol in a bathtub full of water, he said. Or for beer drinkers, that translates into one bottle of suds diluted with 100 gallons of water.
That's "basically nothing," Clarke said in a telephone interview, but it was enough for the tiny worm. The worm normally lives for only about 15 days, but a trace of alcohol extended that to up to 40 days, according to the study. If that worked for humans, we could sniff a little booze first thing in the morning and stick around for a couple of centuries.
That, unfortunately, is a really long shot. But the possibility is tantalizing, because we have much in common with C. elegans.
First, a word about the hero in this story. Half a century ago molecular biologist Sydney Brenner suggested that the tiny worm could be very useful to researchers, and the creature has since played a big role in science. It reproduces quickly during its short life, so many generations can be studied in a relatively brief period of time. It is a very simple organism, making it easier to study, yet it shares many biological systems with humans.
It has been described as "non-hazardous, non-infectious, non-pathogenic, and non-parasitic," and "transparent," and it has constantly amazed scientists. During one four-month period alone 73 articles about the worm appeared in international science journals.
The worm is particularly useful in the study of aging, and it has been at the forefront in research in Clarke's lab. Clarke and his colleagues -- Paola Castro, Shilpi Khare and Brian Young -- were using the worm to study the effects of cholesterol, which is crucial for humans but dangerous in the bloodstream. The first hint of what lay ahead came when the researchers put C. elegans larvae in a solution of ethanol, which works as a solvent, and cholesterol.
That research led to a paper showing that the cholesterol increased the lifespan of worms. But a phone call from a colleague at the California Institute of Technology introduced the first twist in this scientific journey.