Bigger is not better when it comes to lifespan
Published: 2 December 2015
A study looking at how DNA changes with body size may help scientists to explain why taller individuals tend to have shorter lives. The new findings, based on wild house sparrows, show how changes in DNA that are linked to ageing and lifespan take place as body size gets bigger. The study, a collaboration between the Institute's Prof Pat Monaghan and Prof Bernt-Erik Sæther's team at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Martha de Jong-Lantink shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license" width="700" height="413" style="width: 700px; height: 413px; border: 0; " />
A study looking at how DNA changes with body size may help scientists to explain why taller individuals tend to have shorter lives. Published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B the new findings, based on wild house sparrows, show how changes in DNA that are linked to ageing and lifespan take place as body size gets bigger.
Although larger types of animals tend to live longer than smaller ones—elephants live longer than mice—within many species the bigger individuals have shorter life spans than their smaller counterparts, e.g. a Jack Russell has a much longer life than a St Bernard. In humans, a recent study has shown that taller people are more prone to diseases including cancer. But biologists haven’t been able to fully explain why.
Research into telomeres, special DNA structures that all animals have at the ends of their chromosomes, and described as functioning like “the protective plastic caps at the end of shoelaces” may provide the answer. The study, a collaboration between the Institute's Prof Pat Monaghan and Prof Bernt-Erik Sæther's team at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, focused on a population of wild house sparrows on the isolated island of Leka in Norway.
The research team found that skeletally bigger house sparrows had shorter telomeres. This relationship was maintained during a period when a selective breeding programme on the island resulted in the sparrows becoming even larger. In tandem, their telomeres became even shorter.
Everyone’s telomeres erode over time, and telomere shortening has been linked to ageing and disease risk including cancer. Having naturally longer telomeres appears to give individuals an advantage when it comes to health and the biological aging process. The results shed light on a paradox that has puzzled biologists for a long time—if being bigger gives you a competitive advantage, why don’t animals just get bigger and bigger? Part of the answer is that growing big can mean more telomere loss and faster ageing.
Associate Professor in population ecology Thor Harald Ringsby at Norwegian University of Science and Technology who was running the fieldwork together with his colleagues in Norway said:
The study, entitled ‘On being the right size: increased body size is associated with reduced telomere length under natural conditions’ is published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The research was funded by the European Research Council and the Research Council of Norway.
First published: 2 December 2015