Loss of Epigenetic Information Can Drive Aging, Restoration Can Reverse It

Study in mice implicates changes to way DNA is organized, regulated rather than changes to genetic code itself

Two mice sit on a ridged surface. One has darker hair and one is grayer
Genetics professor David Sinclair explains how changes to DNA organization and regulation can accelerate or reverse signs of aging in mice. Video: Rick Groleau and Bruce Walker

An international study 13 years in the making demonstrates for the first time that degradation in the way DNA is organized and regulated — known as epigenetics — can drive aging in an organism, independently of changes to the genetic code itself.

The work shows that a breakdown in epigenetic information causes mice to age and that restoring the integrity of the epigenome reverses those signs of aging.

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Findings are published online Jan. 12 in Cell.

“We believe ours is the first study to show epigenetic change as a primary driver of aging in mammals,” said the paper’s senior author, David Sinclair, professor of genetics in the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School and co-director of the Paul F. Glenn Center for Biology of Aging Research.

The team’s extensive series of experiments provide long-awaited confirmation that DNA changes are not the only, or even the main, cause of aging. Rather, the findings show, chemical and structural changes to chromatin — the complex of DNA and proteins that forms chromosomes — fuel aging without altering the genetic code itself.

  • Head shot of a young Korean man in glasses with bangs swept to one side

    Long time coming

    The study marks the culmination of 10 years of Yang’s career as a postdoctoral researcher.

    But there were moments along the way when he thought he’d never see the work completed.