Sex Kills

Wanna stay alive until the calendar reads 2200? Wanna live to see the birth of your great-great-great-grandchildren? Wanna live to see I Love Lucy finally go off the air? UC Irvine professor Michael R. Rose might have a way to double a human being's life span. But be careful: his prescription may make your newly expanded life unbearable.

For the past 24 years, Rose has been breeding fruit flies. He uses them to test his revolutionary theory that life span is a variable with no upper limit. His research with the flies suggests Rose is on to something: his fruit flies today live twice as long as the normal fruit fly.

Rose's experiment is simple and based on natural selection (although carried out in the artificial confines of a laboratory). He allowed his initial batch of flies to breed prodigiously but killed whatever eggs were created. He did this for five weeks—the fruit fly's typical life span—methodically breeding and then butchering the flies' progeny. But Rose saved any eggs laid by flies at the end of their lives. He allowed those eggs to grow into adult flies and repeated the process, this time waiting just a little longer before collecting eggs.

Sure enough, Rose determined that the fruit fly progeny born at the end of their parents' lives lived slightly longer than normal fruit flies. By continuing the experiment with succeeding generations, Rose has been able to breed fruit flies that live 10 weeks or more.

Rose started with 200 flies while a genetics grad student at the University of Sussex. Today, his 4,500-square-foot UCI lab houses nearly a million.

It seems that, for a variety of reasons, it's better for an organism to reproduce later in life. On a strictly species level, this helps future generations by weeding out genetic diseases and mutations that kill young adults. In other words, it takes tough genes to live to old age.

That's great for generations far in the future, but selective breeding does nothing to prolong our lives right now. But according to Rose, waiting until late in life before reproducing may by itself prolong life.

"Scientists have thoroughly documented that the reproductive period, which includes care of offspring, has disadvantages ranging from reduced resistance to disease and stress to increased predation by other animals," wrote Rose in the October 1992 issue of Technology Review. "This has been shown, for example, by castrating salmon and marsupial mice; such animals have greatly increased life spans."

There's no question that having kids is a major stress—but castration? Isn't that a case of the survivors envying the dead?

Rose wants to extend his experiment to include lab mice to produce data more applicable to humans. Then, he hopes, scientists could isolate whatever genes were special to the supermice and synthesize some sort of therapy for humans. But don't expect a miracle pill: Rose predicts such a therapy would require regular, perhaps daily, doses.

 
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