Bigger is not better when it comes to lifespan

December 2, 2015
Bigger is not better when it comes to lifespan

A study looking at how DNA changes with body size may help scientists to explain why taller individuals tend to have shorter lives.

The new findings, based on wild house sparrows, and published today, show how changes in DNA that are linked to ageing and lifespan take place as body size gets bigger.

Although larger types of animals tend to live longer than smaller ones – elephants live longer than mice – within many species the bigger individuals have shorter life spans than their smaller counterparts – a Jack Russell has a much than a St Bernard. In humans, a recent study has shown that taller people are more prone to diseases including cancer. But biologists haven't been able to fully explain why.

Research into telomeres, special DNA structures that all animals have at the ends of their chromosomes, described as functioning like "the protective plastic caps at the end of shoelaces" may provide the answer.

The study, conducted jointly by the University of Glasgow's Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health & Comparative Medicine and the Centre of Biodiversity Dynamics at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, focused on a population of wild house sparrows on the isolated island of Leka in Norway.

The research, published in the Proceedings of the Royal SocietyB: Biological Sciences, found that skeletally bigger had shorter telomeres. This relationship was maintained during a period when a selective breeding programme on the island resulted in the sparrows becoming even larger. In tandem, their telomeres became even shorter.

Everyone's telomeres erode over time, and telomere shortening has been linked to ageing and disease risk including cancer. Having naturally longer telomeres appears to give individuals an advantage when it comes to health and the biological aging process. The results shed light on a paradox that has puzzled biologists for a long time. If being bigger gives you a competitive advantage, why don't animals just get bigger and bigger? Part of the answer is that growing big can mean more telomere loss and faster ageing.

Professor Pat Monaghan, Regius Chair of Zoology at the University of Glasgow, who supervised the telomere analysis, said: "Growing a bigger body means that cells have to divide more. As a result, telomeres become eroded faster and cells and tissues function less well as a result.

"The reason why the bigger individuals have shorter telomeres might also be related to increased DNA damage due to growing faster. Being big can have advantages, of course, but this study shows that it can also have costs."

Associate professor in population ecology Thor Harald Ringsby at Norwegian University of Science and Technology who was running the fieldwork together with his colleagues in Norway said: 'The results from this study are very exciting and broad reaching. It is especially interesting that we obtained these results in a natural population. The reduction in telomere size that followed the increase in body size suggests one important mechanism that limits body size evolution in wild animal populations"

The study, entitled 'On being the right size: increased is associated with reduced telomere length under natural conditions' is published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences journal. The research was funded by the European Research Council and the Research Council of Norway.

Explore further: Causal link between telomere shortening and Alzheimer's disease

More information: On being the right size: increased body size is associated with reduced telomere length under natural conditons, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/lookup/doi/10.1098/rspb.2015.2331

Related Stories

Causal link between telomere shortening and Alzheimer's disease

October 13, 2015

In a newly published study, researchers at Karolinska Institutet show that the shortening of the telomeres – the caps at each end of the chromosomes in our cells – can be linked statistically to the active mechanism responsible ...

Study provides insights on chronic lung disease

June 15, 2015

A new study shows that shorter telomeres—which are the protective caps at the end of a cell's chromosomes—are linked with worse survival in a progressive respiratory disease called idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF). ...

Telomere changes predict cancer

April 30, 2015

A distinct pattern in the changing length of blood telomeres, the protective end caps on our DNA strands, can predict cancer many years before actual diagnosis, according to a new study from Northwestern Medicine in collaboration ...

Recommended for you

Study details ringed structure of ORC in DNA replication

February 21, 2017

An international collaboration of life scientists, including experts at Van Andel Research Institute, has described in exquisite detail the critical first steps of DNA replication, which allows cells to divide and most advanced ...

Unlocking crop diversity by manipulating plant sex

February 21, 2017

Researchers have discovered a key gene that influences genetic recombination during sexual reproduction in wild plant populations. Adding extra copies of this gene resulted in a massive boost to recombination and diversity ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

thomas_samaras_77
not rated yet Dec 15, 2015
Many years of research indicate that shorter, smaller humans live longer under healthful nutrition and environments. For example, a study 8000 of elderly Japanese Hawaiians tracked them for 40 years and found shorter men live longer. In addition, a Spanish study of 1.3 million men found that shorter men lived longer. Another study reported that American men were 9% taller than women and had a 9% shorter life expectancy at birth. There are many biological factors related to the benefits of being shorter and lighter. These include the shorter telomeres found in the above sparrow study, lower blood pressure, lower left ventricular mass, lower insulin and insulin-like growth factor-1 and higher expression of the FOXO3 gene.

A review of the various types of evidence available is given in the open access paper: Samaras TT, Evidence from eight different types of studies showing that smaller body size is related to greater longevity. 2014, Journal of Scientific Research & Reports.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.