USC Study Finds Tiny Protein Has Big Impact on Longevity and Health

Cell structure and mitochondrion, illustration

Getting old is never fun, but new research is pointing to a potential reason why certain animals live longer than others and how a tiny protein could be the key to having a longer and healthier life.

Researchers at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology led a study into a protein known as humanin - a micro-peptide contained in the genome of mitochondria. If you remember your high school biology, mitochondria are the "powerhouse of the cell."

The researchers conducted several experiments using laboratory animals (such as worms and mice), as well as measurements of human patients to find out why higher levels of humanin in the body have been connected to longer lifespans and better health.

“Humanin has long been known to help prevent many age-related diseases, and this is the first time that it has been shown that it can also increase lifespan,'' said senior author Pinchas Cohen, professor of gerontology, medicine and biological sciences and dean of the USC Leonard Davis School.

The name humanin might make you think the protein is only found in people, however, it's also been found throughout the animal kingdom, which scientists believe shows the related genetic information is retained through a species' evolutionary path.

According to the study, published online in the journal Aging, highlighted the potential for humanin and other types of mitochondrial proteins could be used for treating age-related illnesses. Previous studies have found humanin levels decreasing with age in many species, while a high level of humanin were also found in species that are predisposed to living longer life, such as the naked mole rat.

“This study, as well as many others, suggest that humanin administration would be an effective therapeutic treatment for a large number of diseases and further solidifies the importance of the mitochondria beyond its traditional role as the `powerhouse of the cell,''' Cohen said.

Photo: Getty Images

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