Life in the City

Life in the City

by Guest Blogger,
Tyler Kokjohn, Ph.D.

BirdIt was a bleak winter day in Chicago; one when the weather could not decide if it wanted to rain or snow, so it was doing both halfheartedly. I was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Illinois-Chicago seeking respite from failing experiments, feeling sorry for myself about how tough life could be.

Sitting on the wet granite steps at the center of campus, I heard rustling. Thinking it must be a rat out early on a dark day, I glanced at a nearby metal mesh garbage can and found the culprit. Only slowly did I realize the rat I had envisioned skulking about was actually a pigeon. Perhaps the shabbiest pigeon on our planet, it was almost black with grime and laboring hard to yank a clearly long-deceased French fry out of that garbage container. Thinking how the city can be a tough place to make a living, I finally noticed the poor thing only had one leg. And in that moment I realized my problems could be much worse.

This memory was brought forward by a story featured recently on the Science magazine website (1). A new investigation has revealed the stresses of city living might hasten the aging process itself in birds. Systematic comparisons of chicks raised in urban and rural environments revealed the protective structures on the ends of chromosomes, telomeres, were shorter in city birds. Short telomeres have been correlated with age-related malfunctions, suggesting city birds along with other problems may have decreased life expectancies compared to their clean-living country cousins. Perhaps scientists have unveiled one mechanism explaining how the stresses and strains of city living stamp their harsh legacy directly into our DNA.

Telomeres fascinate scientists interested in the aging process because they control the timing of cell senescence (2). Could long telomeres be the key to life extension or perhaps immortality? The evidence of benefits from telomere extension is still inconclusive, but the CEO of a biotech firm developing anti-aging therapies may have bet her life on the idea (3, 4). Suffering from a degenerative disease (5) she received genetic therapies (administered outside the U. S.) intended to rejuvenate muscle and lengthen telomeres. Some evidence suggests the chromosome telomeres of her white blood cells were lengthened (4), but only time will reveal if and how that influenced her health and longevity.

The little birdies might be telling us our environments have a big impact on how well and how long we live. That leads to optimism we can change the cadence of the aging process. Increasing telomere lengths is one thing, but life extension may be something else entirely. While telomere shortening limits cell longevity, the aging process and the many changes that accompany it involve far more than this single structure (2). Making telomeres longer is no sure cure for aging, but using a viral vector to deliver the necessary genes may produce other serious consequences, including cancer.

Hopefully the brash decisions of a biotech CEO will be a key breakthrough for longevity research. However, the good outcomes she hopes for are uncertain. Gene therapy using viruses carries some intrinsic risks and this confident visionary might discover an unproven gene therapy has worsened her problems. Instead of scientific triumph another cautionary tale of great expectations grounded by cruel reality. Unfortunately, that’s life in the big city.


(1) C. Asher. 2016. This Is What City Living Does to Birds. Science, 14 June 2016.

(2) L. Hayflick. 2000. The illusion of cell immortality. British J. Cancer Res. 83(7):841-846.

(3) K. Grens. 2016. First Data From Anti-Aging Gene Therapy. The Scientist, 25 April 2016.

(4) E. Zolfagharifard. 2016. Could gene therapy help you live forever? CEO of controversial firm claims she has successfully carried out first anti-ageing treatment – on herself. The Daily Mail, 26 April 2016.

(5) A. Regalado. 2015. A Tale of Do-It-Yourself Gene Therapy. An American biotech CEO claims she is the first to undergo gene therapy to reverse aging. Judge for yourself. MIT Technology Review, 14 October 2015.


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