Is Aging Evitable?

Interview with Dr. Annette Baudisch

24. 4. 2012 | The biologist and mathematician Dr. Annette Baudisch compares mortality rate across species. Her results challenge the classic theories of aging – some species show practically no statistical aging across their lifetime. Dr. Baudisch is head of the research group Modeling the Evolution of Aging at the Max Planck Intitute for Demographic Research in Rostock.
AcademiaNet: Dr. Baudisch, your work has revolutionized the theory of aging. In which respect were the old theories incomplete, and what does your theory help to explain?

Dr. Annette Baudisch
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Dr. Annette Baudisch
Dr. Annette Baudisch: Classic evolutionary theories of aging predict that aging should have evolved inevitably for all species capable of repeated breeding. In contrast, my work shows that there are circumstances when organisms could escape aging. Notably, escaping aging does not mean escaping death. Every living organism has to die, the risk of dying could be high at every age, in which case life is short, or it could be low at every age, in which case life is long. In this way, the level of mortality determines the pace of life. But aging reflects a change over age, in fact a detrimental change over age that results in an increase of mortality with age. In my models, I find that age-patterns of mortality can evolve that show various shapes, including increasing, constant or decreasing age-specific mortality, which is at odds with current theories.

Could you give a few empirical examples how a new theory of aging sheds new light on facts and data otherwise overlooked?

The new distinction between the "pace" of life and the "shape" of aging reveals that for example the short-lived robin does not experience much aging, it just lives at a very fast pace, while we long-lived humans experience a really steep and strong pattern of aging, i.e. we age a lot, albeit at a slow pace. Until now, longer lives were simply thought to mean less aging. This view is too simplistic, as it confounds the pace and the shape of aging. Especially helpful to study would be species that live at a fast pace but show a "negative" shape, i.e falling mortality with age. Those species would have a short lifespan and would thus be appropriate to be studied e.g. within the timeframe of a PhD thesis, yet they could teach us how they managed to escape aging. For example the freshwater polyp Hydra Vulgaris seems to enjoy constant conditions with age. Classic lab species like flies, worms or mice in contrast all age significantly. 

Research group of Dr. Annette Baudisch
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(© MPIDR / Björn Schwentker )

Research group of Dr. Annette Baudisch

What are you and your research group currently working on, what is your goal – a comprehensive theory of life history strategies? If yes, how are you planning to test this theory empirically?

Before we can think about a comprehensive theory we first need a comprehensive overview of the patterns that we wish to explain with such a theory. So we are in the process of compiling databases of birth and death counts for many species. Just recently, we published the software package BaSTA which serves to extract aging patterns from data that are "wild and messy". Simultaniously, we are in the process of taking a critical look at current theories to unravel at what points the theories can be extended or need a make-over. We will develop and validate our models based on the patterns we observe in the data we compiled. In systematically extracting patterns from empirical data, the concepts of pace and shape will play a crucial role.

You are a young biologist and mathematician: How did you become interested in aging patterns?

It has been a natural development. I just did what I was curious about. But there is a specific event one might single out as "getting me hooked". During a lecture taught by James W. Vaupel, one of the MPIDR directors, I heard that fruit-flies could experience dramatically different mortality patterns depending on what kind of diet they got. The experimental results seemed to indicate that aging is enormously flexible and not at all a narrowly programmed, single road to death.

Dear Dr. Baudisch, thank you very much for this interview.

Interview: Susanne Dambeck
  (© AcademiaNet)

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