Professor Cynthia Kenyon, gerontologist at the University of California, has discovered that carbohydrates directly affect two key genes that govern youthfulness and longevity.
Kenyon, whom many believe could win the Nobel Prize for her research into ageing, made her breakthrough after studying roundworms, specifically the C. elegans, tiny worms that live in the soil.
By tweaking some of their genes she has been able to help the worms live up to six times longer than normal.
So how does a worm hold the key to human ageing? After 18 days, the average roundworm is flabby, sluggish and wrinkled. Two days later it will probably be dead.
Kenyon found that damping down the activity of just one of their genes had a dramatic effect. “Instead of dying at about 20 days, the mutant worms carried on living to more than 40 days,” she says.
“And they weren’t sluggish and worn out — they behaved like youngsters.”
With more sophisticated genetic manipulation, she now has some worms that have lived for an astonishing 144 days. An increase of that proportion would allow humans to live to 450 years.