The world record holder for the longest living person is Jeanne Calment (France, 1875-1997), who passed away when she was 122-years-old. She was a remarkable woman: began fencing at 85, rode her bicycle until 100, and smoked until age 116. When studying such individuals Professor Stuart Kim and his students found that they were actually less healthy than most humans; they often smoke, drink, and seem to neither eat nor exercise very well. Good diet and exercise will likely increase your lifespan by 10 years, but what really does the trick is having genes like Calment, which could add close to 30 additional years.
Kim’s primary goal is to understand the process of growing old, and then to try to slow down or even reverse aging. By comparing extreme difference in lifespans across species, he has tried to figure out the underlying clock that dictates the rate at which normal aging occurs. For example, 98% of chimpanzee genes are identical to that of humans and yet they live half as long. Therefore, we must wonder whether something in that 2% could potentially double our lifespans.
Species such as bowhead whales – known to live more than 200 years – use the same building blocks for their DNA, proteins, and fats as humans. This elongated lifespan can be understood if we view aging as not only a wear-and-tear molecular process, but something with a “master regulator” that could be controlled. When experimenting with the world’s fastest aging animal the Nematode, Kim found that “turning on the right transcription factor” of the genes could reactivate an aged worm. This actually has significant implications for how to think about aging; his findings suggest that nothing is irreversible, therein increasing the possibility for rejuvenation.
Aging has been extensively investigated within the scientific community, but it has also been widely discussed in societal, philosophical, and religious contexts as well. Stuart Kim’s efforts and accomplishments in intervening with the inevitable process of gene maturation prompts us to rethink the real meaning of aging.
Stuart Kim is professor of developmental biology at Stanford University. He received his BA degree from Dartmouth College in 1979 with majors in chemistry and philosophy. Kim received his Ph.D. from Caltech working with Lee Hood and Barbara Wold. He has worked as a post-doctoral fellow with Bob Horvitz at MIT on C. elegans development. He joined the department of developmental biology at Stanford University in 1989 as an assistant professor. He was promoted to associate professor in 1996 and full professor in 2003. Kim has been a Markey Scholar, a Searle Scholar, and an Ellison Scholar for his research on the genetics of aging. He was awarded the Ho-Am prize in medicine in 2004, the Glenn Award in Aging Research in 2008, and was elected as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2012. He is an editor of PLOS Genetics, is on the National Science Advisory Council for the American Federation for Aging Research, and has been on the Scientific Advisory Board for the Buck Institute, Novato, California and for Elysium Health.