The humble starfish may hold the secret of eternal youth, new research suggests. Swedish scientists say they have discovered that starfish – which can reproduce by cloning themselves – produce a special kind of DNA that doesn’t age as it does in humans. However this unique genetic trait was only found in starfish that reproduced by cloning, rather than sexually. The discovery relates to what are known as tiny structures called telomeres – biological caps found at the ends of chromosomes. They protect the DNA in chromosomes from damage, much like the caps on the ends of shoelaces prevent fraying. As we get older, our telomeres get shorter and shorter, leading to DNA becoming damaged and raising the odds of age-related illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, diabetes and heart disease. Shorter than average telomeres are seen as a sign of ill health and premature death. Lengths of telomeres protect genetic data, make it possible for cells to divide, and hold some of the secrets of how humans age and develop cancer.
Project leader Helen Nilsson Skold, of Gothenburg University, explained: ‘Each time a cell divides the telomeres shorten in length and as they shorten so we age.’ ‘Starfish, unlike humans, can reproduce both through cloning and sexually. ‘When starfish clone the telomeres of the newly formed tissue emerge longer than the old tissue,’ she added. The research could show how to make human DNA follow the same pattern, producing humans that could, in theory, stay young for their entire lives. Dr Skold explained: ‘You can say that there is a rejuvenation when new tissue is formed during cloning as opposed to sexual reproduction.’