Science & Technology

Methuselah Mouse

Why you should care about old mice


Forget the X Prize. What's so great about sending a couple of people 100 kilometers up and down in the sky anyway? A much more interesting and important goal for the future of humanity is the seemingly humble goal of raising a mouse to live a healthy life lasting seven, eight, or more years.

That's the goal of the Methuselah Mouse Prize. It's named after Methuselah, the Biblical figure who was supposedly the longest-lived human ever, surviving 969 years.

But why would anyone want to lengthen the lives of mice? Humanity has spent thousands of years—using poisons, traps, and cats—trying to shorten the time that the pesky rodents infest our homes and grain bins.

The idea is that if scientists can reliably lengthen the lives of mice, then they will be well on their way to figuring out how to do the same for people. The underlying insight is that, in a sense, humans are just big mice, since 99 percent of a mouse's 30,000 or so genes have direct counterparts in humans.

The Methuselah Mouse Prize is chiefly the brainchild of Cambridge University theoretical biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey. De Grey worked out how to structure the prize in 2001 over beers in Maui with Chris Heward, the president of the longevity company Kronos Science Laboratories.

The Methuselah Foundation offers two prizes. One is the Postponement Prize, which is awarded "whenever the world record lifespan for a mouse of the species most commonly used in scientific work, Mus musculus, is exceeded." The second one is the Reversal Prize, which will be awarded to researchers whose interventions keep a mature mouse alive significantly longer than expected.

Say, for example, you begin dosing a two-year-old mouse with your new Ponce de Leon solution. Normally, such a mouse might be expected to live another year or so. But if he makes it to six years, that would certainly be worth the prize. The Reversal Prize is supposed to encourage researchers to "develop effective late-onset life-extension interventions that will be beneficial to the elderly." Naturally, the Reversal Prize will be of particular interest to Baby Boomers like me.

The prize now stands at over $61,000. Organizers hope to dramatically increase that amount through a donation drive soon. Current contributors include former Human Genomes Sciences' president William Haseltine and computer entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil.

The bad news for us humans who want to live a long but mostly normal life is that being a dwarf and sterile seems to be the main route to longevity for a mouse. So far the dwarf mouse GHR-KO 11C holds the official record for being the longest lived of his species. GHR-KO 11C wiled away his time in Andrzej Bartke's lab at Southern Illinois University, living 1,819 days, just a week shy of five years. That's the equivalent in human terms of a lifespan of 180 to 200 years.

The significance of GHR-KO 11C's achievement becomes clear when one realizes that the next oldest mouse on record, Yoda, died last April at the University of Michigan after living just four years and 12 days. Reduced levels of growth hormone seem to slow down the aging process. The speculation is that the dwarf mice have lower core temperatures and slower metabolisms, which means that they produce less of the reactive oxygen that damages genes and causes aging. So far six teams have officially registered their mice for the prize.

The aim of the Methuselah Mouse Prize is not just to tempt scientists to get involved with anti-aging research. It's also a public relations stunt aiming to capture the public's imagination. De Grey believes that the public will demand more research into finding effective anti-aging treatments once they are convinced that it's possible to significantly retard aging in a mammal. "I think it's great," says Christiaan Leeuwenburgh, director of the University of Florida's Biochemistry of Aging Laboratory. "It's going to get a lot of positive public attention for anti-aging research."