This is really cool. No wait, it is, I promise… and it’s really important to humans.
This is why we do sometimes weird science. It’s not because science grants are free money or because the government is wasting tax-payer dollars on turtles. It’s because we learned something very important.
Turtles are pretty interesting creatures. They have two major adaptations that humans are interested in. The first is that turtles can survive, quite happily, for months with nearly no oxygen. In a human, after more than about 5 minutes of the brain being deprived of oxygen, it begins to have massive failures. But the lowly painted turtle can hibernate at the bottom of lake for four months. Maybe there’s something to be learned from that ability in the turtle that could help humans in case of heart attack, stroke, etc.
The second ability is that turtles live a long time. Some species are actively reproductive well into their second century of life. Humans can barely make it a century and reproductive activity stops at a little over half that time frame. Maybe, just maybe, we can extend human life.**
What these scientists found was fascinating to say the least. They were expecting weird new genes and impressive protein cascades and the like.
What they found was nothing unusual. The same genes that the turtles use to keep from dying in anoxic conditions are genes that humans have. Turtles just express those genes up to 130 times more than humans do.
Likewise, the turtle longevity isn’t associated with new genes that extend their lifespan. They have a mistake in some of their genes, a mutation. Those genes are the same ones in humans that shorten our lives.
Yep, you read that right. Our very genes are convinced that we shouldn’t live as long as we might be able to and work to shorten our lives. And that’s the best evidence for a supreme deity or intelligent designer I’ve ever heard. Could you imagine have to still deal with people who were alive in during the Civil War? Our culture is radically altering itself on an almost yearly basis, the resistant to change mind of humans could stagnate our culture if it weren’t for new generations moving in and taking over.
All the philosophical stuff aside, this is really cool research.
One of the most interesting things about Ian Banks Culture novels (had to mention him again!) is that the humans in the Culture have highly designed bodies. There’s even a mental menu for preferences. A Culture citizen can easily change their hair, skin, or eye color… or even sex, add wings, or just about anything else that can be imagined. If a male wants to be a female, they just set some commands and over the next few months, the body changes. It will become a fully functional (i.e. capable of having a baby) female body. Have a kid, then change back to male. Why not? (Self pollination is frowned upon.)
With these revelations from the turtle genome, we (most likely our grandchildren) may have the ability to extend their lifespan. I would hope that humans, as a global culture, would have grown up a little and become wiser… I’m not all that hopeful though.
** Note, this isn’t about the ethical, population, or sustainability of extended human life spans. It’s just about the ability to.