There is the holy, life, and then there is the holy grail, immortality. We humans have been voracious seekers of the fountain of youth since the time of new world explorations and even before. Ponce De Leon undertook an expedition in Florida in 1513 for the evasive water of youth but he could not unravel the fountain for a protracted summer. The legend of Prester John, the mythical African king, speculates that somewhere deep inside the highlands of Ethiopia, exists an elixir of perpetual youth. Biology too agrees, that, at the end pages of the chromosomes, there is a workaholic protein by the name of Telomerase that keeps bridging the shorter ends with extensions, to ensure that chromosomes do not shorten beyond the Hayflick’s Limit, when the cell undergoes a phenomenon called programmed cell death. In simple terms, if the chromosomes reach a critical shortened length, then the cell dies.
The roots of Telomerase stem from a laboratory at University of California, San Francisco, where Dr Elizabeth Blackburn found a peculiar system of lengthening the shortening ends of the chromosomes. She found out that an enzyme which was able to copy RNA into DNA, was stringing together nucleotides to lengthen the ends of the telomeres and consequently stretch the rounds of replication and the boundaries of life.
Where public engagement and biomedical research converge is, at both, the promise of tinkering with telomerase, and the ethical boundaries that we will be extending to make this a reality. The extended moral horizon comes in the form of how unethical immortality is, and how we as a planet are going to carry the billions of spring chickens, when our resources, our fossil fuels, our earthly elements and our fresh water are in short supply. Overcrowding the planet, with concomitant demands on food supply, is bound to increase the carbon and nitrogen footprints of each nation. We will then no longer be a Goldilocks planet, but a planet filled with greenhouse gases, making a dash to the finish line, our own Armageddon. We have limited scope in reforestation, hydroponics, underground cultivation, vertical vegetable patches or aquaculture of saltwater algae to make our environment richer in oxygen. This plethora of problems ensure that we hang up our ambitions and limit our spans from birth till death.
There are many immortality advocates, including the avid science freaks and the rogue scientists that wish to prolong life to the end of time. This is why we need to engage the scientific community with the common man, to distinguish the need for better healthcare, better preventative medicine, accurate diagnostics, sound therapies, genetic counselling and geriatric facilities, all of which improve the quality and the quantity of life without the madness of wanting to live beyond the inevitable, the mandatory solitude we call death. Still there might be those that see the extended hedonistic comforts provided by an eternal youth and choose to live through hitchhiking on pleasure, saddling to their selfish ambitions.
In the movie “The Green Mile”, there is a circus mouse “Mr Jingles” that lives to see many more years than a normal murine lifespan. Human life too will be a green mile, if we do giddy up on the juggernaut of immortality. We will then be prisoners of our own making; when we will live with poverty, malnutrition, communicable diseases, a broader spectrum of cancers and having an overall miserly quality of life. Methuselah lived to see 969 years in the Old Testament. Prester John, the Ethiopian king, saw his 562nd year and was still going strong. I ponder on how someday my great-grandchild will live to see 150 due to health care advances and genome editing technologies such as Crispr-Cas9. Or just maybe, there may be genetically modified telomerases running the strings of the millionth run of the Punch and Judy show. Whatever the reason may be, immortality will divide people in the middle – those that will chase the holy grail and those that will hang up their boots and prostrate to the finitude of life.
We are imperfect creatures on a mesophilic planet that is heating up fast due to greenhouse gas emissions. We were never replicas of an immortal god, just curious foot soldiers searching to expand our worldly experiences along the winding road. Legend says that Prester John knew the secret of the fountain of youth. Now scientists too know the secret of that sacred eternity. It is no miracle portion or elixir; it is just a hard-working biological catalyst, known as an enzyme, extending the extendible – telomeres and life.