Organismal aging and cellular senescence

I’ll curate this 2019 German review through its figures:

“With the discovery of beneficial aspects of cellular senescence and evidence of senescence being not limited to replicative cellular states, a redefinition of our comprehension of aging and senescence appears scientifically overdue.

Figure 1. Current determinants and relevant open questions, marking the processes of aging and senescence as discussed in the text. Aspects represented in green are considered as broadly accepted or scientifically consolidated. Novel aspects that are yet unproven, or are under debate, are highlighted in red.

SASP = senescence-associated secretory phenotype. AASP = putative aging-associated secretory phenotype as suggested in the text.

Figure 2. Theories on the causality and purpose of aging. Graphically summarized are four contrasting concepts crystallized from current evidence addressing the inductive driving force of aging. Apart from a stochastic deleteriome, there are arguments for a pseudo-programmed, programmed or at least partially programmed nature of aging.

Figure 3. Comparative representation of the aging and senescence processes highlighting different levels of interaction and putative sites of interventions.

(1) As discussed in the text, causative mechanisms of aging are still not well understood, however, multiple factors including genetic, epigenetic and stress-related effects seem to have an orchestrated role in the progression of aging. Senescence on the other hand, is seen as a programmed response to different kinds of stressors, which proceed in defined stages. Whether, in analogy, aging also follows a defined program or sequential stages is not known.

(2) Senescence involves autocrine and paracrine factors, which are responsible for a ‘seno-infection’ or bystander effect in neighboring cells. There is currently no direct evidence for a similar factor composition propagating the aging process via a kind of ‘gero-infection’.

(3) Accumulation of senescent cells has been described as a hallmark of aging; however, whether they are a causative factor or a consequence of tissue and organismal aging is still unknown. As discussed in the text, it appears possible that aging and senescence mutually influence each other through positive feedback at this level, leading to accelerated tissue damage and aging.

(4,5) Clearance of senescent or aging cells might constitute putative targets for interventional approaches aimed to reduce or reverse the impact of aging and improve cell and tissue homeostasis by inducing a ‘rejuvenation’ process.

Figure 4. Pathological and beneficial functions of aging and senescence, according to current knowledge. In red are represented pathological consequences and in green beneficial functions of aging and senescence.

The impact of aging has mainly been described at the organismal level, since a complete cellular functional profile has not yet been established. Accordingly, whether beneficial consequences of the aging process exist at the cellular level is unclear.”


The reviewers’ position on Figure 2 was:

“In our view, recent evidence that senescence is based on an unterminated developmental growth program and the finding that the concept of post-mitotic senescence requires the activation of expansion, or ‘growth’ factors as a second hit, favor the assumption that aging underlies a grating of genetic determination similarly to what is summarized above under the pseudo-programmed causative approach.”

Their position on Figure 4’s beneficial effects of aging began with the sentence:

“If we assume that aging already starts before birth, it can be considered simply a developmental stage, required to complete the evolutionary program associated with species-intrinsic biological functions such as reproduction, survival, and selection.”

Cited studies included:

https://www.mdpi.com/2073-4409/8/11/1446 “Dissecting Aging and Senescence-Current Concepts and Open Lessons”

Epigenetic transgenerational inheritance extends to the great-great-grand offspring

This 2019 rodent study by the Washington State University labs of Dr. Michael Skinner continued to F4 generation great-great-grand offspring, and demonstrated that epigenetic inheritance mechanisms are similar to imprinted genes:

“Epigenetic transgenerational inheritance potentially impacts disease etiology, phenotypic variation, and evolution. An increasing number of environmental factors from nutrition to toxicants have been shown to promote the epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of disease.

Imprinted genes are a special class of genes since their DNA methylation patterns are unchanged over the generation and are not affected by the methylation erasure occurring early in development. The transgenerational epigenetic alterations in the germline appear to be permanently reprogrammed like imprinted genes, and appear protected from this DNA methylation erasure and reprogramming at fertilization in the subsequent generations. Similar to imprinted genes, the epigenetic transgenerational germline epimutations appear to have a methylation erasure in the primordial germ cells involving an epigenetic molecular memory.

Comparison of the transgenerational F3 generation, with the outcross to the F4 generation through the paternal or maternal lineages, allows an assessment of parent-of-origin transmission of disease or pathology. Observations provided examples of the following:

  1. Pathology that required combined contribution of both paternal and maternal alleles to promote disease [testis and ovarian disease];
  2. Pathology that is derived from the opposite sex allele such as father to daughter [kidney disease] or mother to son [prostate disease];
  3. Pathology that is derived from either parent-of-origin alleles independently [obesity];
  4. Pathology that is transmitted within the same sex, such as maternal to daughter [mammary tumor development]; and
  5. Pathology that is observed only following a specific parent-of-origin outcross [both F4 male obesity and F4 female kidney disease in the vinclozolin lineage].”

The study showed that epigenetically inherited legacies extend to the fifth generation. Do any of us know our ancestors’ medical histories back to our great-great-grandparents?

Will toxicologists take their jobs seriously enough to look for possible effects in at least one generation that had no direct toxicant exposure?

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0012160619303471 “Epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of parent-of-origin allelic transmission of outcross pathology and sperm epimutations”

Do genes or maternal environments shape fetal brains?

This 2019 Singapore human study used Diffusion Tensor Imaging on 5-to-17-day old infants to find:

“Our findings showed evidence for region-specific effects of genotype and GxE on individual differences in human fetal development of the hippocampus and amygdala. Gene x Environment models outcompeted models containing genotype or environment only, to best explain the majority of measures but some, especially of the amygdaloid microstructure, were best explained by genotype only.

Models including DNA methylation measured in the neonate umbilical cords outcompeted the Gene and Gene x Environment models for the majority of amygdaloid measures and minority of hippocampal measures. The fact that methylation models outcompeted gene x environment models in many instances is compatible with the idea that DNA methylation is a product of GxE.

A genome-wide association study of SNP [single nucleotide polymorphism] interactions with the prenatal environments (GxE) yielded genome wide significance for 13 gene x environment models. The majority (10) explained hippocampal measures in interaction with prenatal maternal mental health and SES [socioeconomic status]. The three genome-wide significant models predicting amygdaloid measures, explained right amygdala volume in interaction with maternal depression.

The transcription factor CUX1 was implicated in the genotypic variation interaction with prenatal maternal health to shape the amygdala. It was also a central node in the subnetworks formed by genes mapping to the CpGs in neonatal umbilical cord DNA methylation data associating with both amygdala and hippocampus structure and substructure.

Our results implicated the glucocorticoid receptor (NR3C1) in population variance of neonatal amygdala structure and microstructure.

Estrogen in the hippocampus affects learning, memory, neurogenesis, synapse density and plasticity. In the brain testosterone is commonly aromatized to estradiol and thus the estrogen receptor mediates not only the effects of estrogen, but also that of testosterone.”

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/gbb.12576 “Neonatal amygdalae and hippocampi are influenced by genotype and prenatal environment, and reflected in the neonatal DNA methylome” (not freely available)

Reversal of aging and immunosenescent trends

The title of this post is essentially the same as the 2019 human clinical trial:

“Epigenetic aging can be reversed in humans. Using a protocol intended to regenerate the thymus, we observed protective immunological changes, improved risk indices for many age‐related diseases, and a mean epigenetic age approximately 1.5 years less than baseline after 1 year of treatment.

This is to our knowledge the first report of an increase, based on an epigenetic age estimator, in predicted human lifespan by means of a currently accessible aging intervention.”

“Example of treatment‐induced change in thymic MRI appearance. Darkening corresponds to replacement of fat with nonadipose tissue. White lines denote the thymic boundary. Volunteer 2 at 0 (a) and 9 (b) months”

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/acel.13028 “Reversal of epigenetic aging and immunosenescent trends in humans”


Here’s a 2017 interview with the clinical trial lead author:

“You might also say that what also happened was to just postpone death from infectious diseases to after 60-65 years of age, which means that the same basic problem still remains.”


The popular press botched the facts as they usually do. I won’t link the UK Independent article because they couldn’t be bothered to even define epigenetic clock correctly.

A science journal article did a better job of explaining the study to readers. However, they often used hyperbole instead of trying to promote understanding.

Josh Mitteldorf’s blog post 1st Age Reversal Results—Is it HGH or Something Else? provided the most informative explanations:

“In 2015, Fahy finally had funding and regulatory approval to replicate his one-man trial in a still-tiny sample of ten men, aged 51-65. That it took so long is an indictment of everything about the way aging research is funded in this country; and not just aging – all medical research is prioritized according to projected profits rather than projected health benefits.”

Take care reading the post’s comments. Both non-scientist (such as Mark, Adrian, and others) and scientist commentators (such as Gustavo, Jeff, and others) attempted to hijack the discussion into their pet theories of reality in which they imagined themselves to be the definitive authorities. My discussion comment – with respect to a Mayo Clinic warning about DHEA – was: “19 instances of the word ‘might’ doesn’t lend itself to credibility.”

Developmental disorders and the epigenetic clock

This 2019 UK/Canada/Germany human study investigated thirteen developmental disorders to identify genes that changed aspects of the epigenetic clock:

“Sotos syndrome accelerates epigenetic aging [+7.64 years]. Sotos syndrome is caused by loss-of-function mutations in the NSD1 gene, which encodes a histone H3 lysine 36 (H3K36) methyltransferase.

This leads to a phenotype which can include:

  • Prenatal and postnatal overgrowth,
  • Facial gestalt,
  • Advanced bone age,
  • Developmental delay,
  • Higher cancer predisposition, and, in some cases,
  • Heart defects.

Many of these characteristics could be interpreted as aging-like, identifying Sotos syndrome as a potential human model of accelerated physiological aging.

This research will shed some light on the different processes that erode the human epigenetic landscape during aging and provide a new hypothesis about the mechanisms behind the epigenetic aging clock.”

“Proposed model that highlights the role of H3K36 methylation maintenance on epigenetic aging:

  • The H3K36me2/3 mark allows recruiting de novo DNA methyltransferases DNMT3A (in green) and DNMT3B (not shown).
  • DNA methylation valleys (DMVs) are conserved genomic regions that are normally found hypomethylated.
  • During aging, the H3K36 methylation machinery could become less efficient at maintaining the H3K36me2/3 landscape.
  • This would lead to a relocation of de novo DNA methyltransferases from their original genomic reservoirs (which would become hypomethylated) to other non-specific regions such as DMVs (which would become hypermethylated and potentially lose their normal boundaries),
  • With functional consequences for the tissues.”

The researchers improved methodologies of several techniques:

  1. “Previous attempts to account for technical variation have used the first 5 principal components estimated directly from the DNA methylation data. However, this approach potentially removes meaningful biological variation. For the first time, we have shown that it is possible to use the control probes from the 450K array to readily correct for batch effects in the context of the epigenetic clock, which reduces the error associated with the predictions and decreases the likelihood of reporting a false positive.
  2. We have confirmed the suspicion that Horvath’s model underestimates epigenetic age for older ages and assessed the impact of this bias in the screen for epigenetic age acceleration.
  3. Because of the way that the Horvath epigenetic clock was trained, it is likely that its constituent 353 CpG sites are a low-dimensional representation of the different genome-wide processes that are eroding the epigenome with age. Our analysis has shown that these 353 CpG sites are characterized by a higher Shannon entropy when compared with the rest of the genome, which is dramatically decreased in the case of Sotos patients.”

https://genomebiology.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13059-019-1753-9 “Screening for genes that accelerate the epigenetic aging clock in humans reveals a role for the H3K36 methyltransferase NSD1”

A better method of measuring neurogenesis

One of the references cited in Linking adult neurogenesis to Alzheimer’s disease was https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-019-0375-9 “Adult hippocampal neurogenesis is abundant in neurologically healthy subjects and drops sharply in patients with Alzheimer’s disease” (not freely available).

This 2019 Spanish human study used improved techniques to find:

“Adult hippocampal neurogenesis (AHN), confers an unparalleled degree of plasticity to the entire hippocampal circuitry. Direct evidence of AHN in humans has remained elusive. Determining whether new neurons are continuously incorporated into the human dentate gyrus (DG) during physiological and pathological aging is a crucial question with outstanding therapeutic potential.

By combining human brain samples obtained under tightly controlled conditions and state-of-the-art tissue processing methods, we identified thousands of immature neurons in the DG of neurologically healthy human subjects up to the ninth decade of life. These neurons exhibited variable degrees of maturation along differentiation stages of AHN. In sharp contrast, the number and maturation of these neurons progressively declined as AD advanced.

These results demonstrate the persistence of AHN during both physiological and pathological aging in humans and provide evidence for impaired neurogenesis as a potentially relevant mechanism underlying memory deficits in AD that might be amenable to novel therapeutic strategies.”


The control group was 13 neurologically healthy deceased people aged 43 to 87. The AD group was 45 deceased people, distributed among the six Braak stages of the pathology, aged 52 to 97.

Transgenerational diseases caused by great-grandmother DDT exposure

This 2019 rodent study from the labs of Dr. Michael Skinner at Washington State University found:

“The exposure of a gestating female during fetal gonadal sex determination to DDT can promote the epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of obesity and disease.

Transgenerational pathologies (F3 generation) of late puberty, obesity, testis, prostate, and multiple disease were observed in the DDT lineage males. Obesity, ovarian, kidney, and multiple disease transgenerational pathologies (F3 generation) were observed in the DDT lineage females.

Epigenetic biomarkers or diagnostics provide preliminary evidence for preconception diagnosis of increased susceptibility to transgenerational disease in offspring.”


For those of us who thought DDT was discontinued:

“DDT was banned in the USA in 1973, but it is still recommended by the World Health Organization for indoor residual spray. India is by far the largest consumer of DDT worldwide.

India has experienced a 5-fold increase of type II diabetes over the last three decades with a predisposition to obesity already present at birth in much of the population. Although a large number of factors may contribute to this increased incidence of obesity, the potential contribution of ancestral toxicant exposures in the induction of obesity susceptibility requires further investigation.”

Where are the human studies of this subject? Why aren’t follow-on generations’ diseases traced to the likely sources?

How many F3 great-grandchildren of women exposed to DDT during pregnancy are alive today? Millions, tens of millions?

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6536675 “Sperm epimutation biomarkers of obesity and pathologies following DDT induced epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of disease”