Researcher to Present Genetic Effects Related to Increased Lifespan

Cynthia Kenyon


Aging was assumed to be a passive consequence of molecular wear and tear until discoveries in the 1990s revealed the existence of genetic mechanisms that influence and even control the process. One of the leaders in unveiling these new mechanisms, Cynthia Kenyon, PhD, will deliver the state-of-the-art lecture, “From C. Elegans to Mammals: Genes that Can Increase Lifespan,” at the plenary session on Saturday, November 12.

Dr. Kenyon is an American Cancer Society Professor in the department of biochemistry and director of the Hillblom Center for the Biology of Aging at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).

In 1993, the discovery by Dr. Kenyon and colleagues that a single-gene mutation could double the lifespan of the tiny roundworm, Caenorhabditis elegans, sparked an intensive study of the molecular biology of aging. The finding challenged the widely held assumption that aging is a random and haphazard process of the body wearing out. Dr. Kenyon was skeptical of this idea, thinking that something as universal and fundamental as aging might well be subject to control by genes.

Dr. Kenyon’s discoveries have led to the realization that genetic circuits exist to control aging, involving hormones as well as proteins that regulate the activities of entire groups of cell-protective genes. The long-lived mutants that Dr. Kenyon and others have identified are resistant to many age-related diseases, raising the possibility of a new strategy for combating many diseases by targeting aging itself. By manipulating genes and cells, Dr. Kenyon and her colleagues extended the lifespan of healthy, active C. elegans by sixfold, demonstrating the extraordinary plasticity of aging.

Dr. Kenyon graduated as the valedictorian in chemistry and biochemistry from the University of Georgia in 1976. She received her PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1981, where she was one of the first to look for genes on the basis of their expression profiles, discovering that DNA-damaging agents activate a battery of DNA repair genes in E. coli. Her postdoctoral studies involved studying the development of C. elegans with Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, United Kingdom.

She has been at UCSF since 1986, serving as the Herbert Boyer Distinguished Professor until her appointment to her present position. Dr. Kenyon has received many honors and awards for her productive research. She is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Institute of Medicine. She is a past president of the Genetics Society of America.

October-November 2011 (Vol. 3, Number 10 & 11)