Worms, booze and life extension

February 7th, 2012

An odd little study from researchers at UCLA, just published in PLoS ONE (full text here; press release here) looks at how alcohol extends lifespan in worms. In fact, these particular worms double their lifespan when you given them a little booze. But “little” is the operative word here: they used ethanol diluted by a factor of 20,000:

“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.

And more wasn’t better: a little more doesn’t provide any additional lifespan benefits; a lot more produces “harmful neurological effects” and kills them. So the optimal dose is a tiny amount.

What does this mean for humans? Very little, at this point. Still, it’s hard not to compare the results to all the human studies that have found longevity benefits for very moderate amounts of alcohol consumption (i.e. a glass a day), but not for larger amounts. It’s still not clear whether the apparent benefits relate to the ethanol itself, or to all the antioxidants and fancy compounds found in wine (and possibly beer). Could humans be affected by a mechanism similar to what’s going on in these worms?

“While the mechanism of action is still not clearly understood, our evidence indicates that these 1 millimeter–long roundworms could be utilizing ethanol directly as a precursor for biosynthesis of high-energy metabolic intermediates or indirectly as a signal to extend life span. These findings could potentially aid researchers in determining how human physiology is altered to induce cardio-protective and other beneficial effects in response to low alcohol consumption.”

Time to go pour a tablespoon of ethanol in my bathtub, I guess!