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New Study Shows Why Rockfish Can Live For Centuries While Humans Can't

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Genomic analysis of Pacific rockfishes, which can survive for more than 200 years, provides insight into the biology of longevity.

In a study appearing this week in the journal Science, biologists at the University of California, Berkeley, compared the genomes of nearly two-thirds of the known species of rockfish that inhabit coastal waters around the Pacific Ocean and uncovered some of the genetic differences that underlie their widely varying lifespans.

“We found genes associated with many different pathways — genes involved in DNA repair, metabolism and immune response,” says Peter Sudmant at the University of California. “It is possible that a set of genes called butyrophilins, which are known to influence many human diseases of inflammation, contribute to the extreme lifespan of long-lived rockfishes.”

Some of the fishes’ longevity comes from their size and habitat. When it comes to achieving longer life spans, scientists have found that bigger organisms often have an advantage because they have a slower metabolism and are less susceptible to predation. Similarly, colder environments can slow a creature’s metabolism: for example, frigid waters make it possible for Greenland sharks to survive for centuries.

"In this study, we identified both the genetic causes and consequences of adaptation to extreme lifespan," said senior author Peter Sudmant, UC Berkeley assistant professor of integrative biology. "It's very exciting to be able to look at a group of species and see how their phenotype has been shaped through time and the genetic changes that drive that phenotype, and simultaneously, how that phenotype then feeds back and influences the genetic diversity of that population."

The study also has implications for understanding the human lifespan. Sudmant and his colleagues found that longer-lived species had more immune-modulating genes—in particular, a group called butyrophilins—than shorter-lived species. Because the immune system is involved in regulating inflammation, and increased inflammation has been implicated in human aging, the findings point to genes that could be targets of therapeutics to slow age-related damage in the body.

"There is an opportunity here to look in nature and see how natural adaptations have shaped lifespan and to think about how those same sorts of genes are acting in our own bodies," he said.