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MIKE MASTERSON: The size of a lifetime

by Mike Masterson | August 4, 2018 at 2:04 a.m.

I read the other day that excited scientists with the Max Planck Institute for Biology of Ageing in Cologne, Germany, appear to have discovered an effective way to predict the natural lifespans of organisms ranging from worms to flies and, yes, even you and me.

The microscopic predictor of how long a life we might expect is called a nucleolus. It lies in the center of each cell that comprises living creatures. In essence, the tinier one's nucleolus measures, the more likely its host is to have a longer natural lifespan. In other words, the smaller the better.

Thus far, the research has shown the correlation between the nucleolus size and lifespans to be consistent and is being called a potential molecular marker for health and aging.

At the risk of being overly academic in further explanation, I'll offer some paraphrasing of what the institute reported.

Those who research the phenomenon of growing older have been seeking for decades what they refer to biomarkers of aging. These could possibly enable scientists and doctors to predict the health of an organism and its likely natural lifespan.

The researchers recently made a breakthrough discovery by initially studying long-lived mutants of a roundworm, all of which displayed smaller nucleoli than their shorter-lived relatives.

This nucleolus lies within a cell nucleus. There, special RNA molecules and proteins assemble to form the protein factories of cells, called ribosomes. The strong correlation between nucleolar size and lifespan enabled institute scientists to predict whether a worm would be short or long-lived.

The researchers also observed reduced nucleolar size in longer-lived animals like fruit flies and mice. The relevance also likely holds true in humans. "When we analyzed muscle biopsies from individuals older than 60 years that underwent modest dietary restriction coupled with exercise--a common way to prolong lifespan and increase health--we found that they had smaller nucleoli in their muscle cells after the intervention than before," said institute director Adam Antebi.

One aspect in analyzing this remarkable discovery is learning whether the reduced nucleolus size is what accounts for actual increased life expectancy, or if it's only a readout of what's happening in a cell. "We think that the size of the nucleolus is not only a biomarker for longevity, but that the molecules within the nucleolus could causally impact life expectancy," explained Antebi.

The scientists have reason to believe their hypothesis is correct. (Warning, gets a tad overly technical here, valued readers.) They observed that the longer-lived worm mutants with small nucleoli also had lower levels of the nucleolar protein known as fibrillarin. That stuff aids in the assembly of the cellular protein factory.

When fibrillarin was reduced, the roundworms lived longer. It followed logically that the levels of fibrillarin in the nucleolus in fact do regulate lifespan.

So do the results thus far perhaps mean one day we might visit our doctor who will measure our nucleoli and thereby estimate our natural life expectancy?

Perhaps, said Antebi. "But there is still a lot of work to be done--more importantly, we hope that our discovery will help us to monitor interventions associated with increased health and longevity."

Bigger is cheaper?

I read the other day that Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced a fully equipped, 10,000-square-foot state crime laboratory will be constructed and ready to open along with a new state police trooper headquarters in Lowell in March next year.

The price tag is set at 2.6 million tax dollars drawn from separate funding sources. And for 10 thousand square feet!

I find that amount interesting since $2.4 million is what the 3,168-square-foot reconstructed visitors center in Harrison reportedly is costing taxpayers, along with similar costs for four other state visitor centers in the same approximate size range.

Perhaps a reconstructed visitors center is more difficult to build per square foot (about $760) than badly needed crime laboratories at around $260.

Price of life

It was predictable that lawyers would be lining up to file civil actions seeking at least $100 million against the owner of the duck boat that sank in a storm on Missouri's Table Rock Lake two weeks ago. Seventeen of the 31 aboard died, including four children and five other members from one Indiana family.

What were their lives worth? If Issue 1 as proposed on Arkansas' November ballot was law in Missouri, an arbitrary price tag of $500,000 would be imposed on the value of the life of every child and person lost in the tragedy. Our trial-by-jury system basically would be rigged since jurors would no longer be able to evaluate the egregiousness of the conduct. The artificial limit set by Issue 1 would apply to all, regardless of age or occupation.

As basically common-sense folks, I believe our voters will continue to trust Arkansas jurors to decide these important issues, rather than politicians and the special interests who influence them. A one-size-fits-all price tag on the value of human life is immoral and shameful.

Top of class

Finally a bit of national good news for Arkansas in general, and the city of Harrison (population 13,000) in particular.

A recent study by judged North Arkansas College's online associate's degree in accounting as the second best value in the United States.

To arrive at that conclusion, the website's researchers equally weighed a list of hundreds of community colleges by tuition and academic quality. Recognized historically for low tuition rates, Northark's online program rose steadily toward such national recognition. Albany Technical College in Albany, Ga., was ranked first.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at

Editorial on 08/04/2018

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