Visualizing the Relationship Between Cancer and Lifespan
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Visualizing the Relationship Between Cancer and Lifespan

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Visualizing the Relationship Between Cancer and Lifespan

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A Newfound Link Between Cancer and Aging?

A new study in 2022 reveals a thought-provoking relationship between how long animals live and how quickly their genetic codes mutate.

Cancer is a product of time and mutations, and so researchers investigated its onset and impact within 16 unique mammals. A new perspective on DNA mutation broadens our understanding of aging and cancer development—and how we might be able to control it.

Mutations, Aging, and Cancer: A Primer

Cancer is the uncontrolled growth of cells. It is not a pathogen that infects the body, but a normal body process gone wrong.

Cells divide and multiply in our bodies all the time. Sometimes, during DNA replication, tiny mistakes (called mutations) appear randomly within the genetic code. Our bodies have mechanisms to correct these errors, and for much of our youth we remain strong and healthy as a result of these corrective measures.

However, these protections weaken as we age. Developing cancer becomes more likely as mutations slip past our defenses and continue to multiply. The longer we live, the more mutations we carry, and the likelihood of them manifesting into cancer increases.

A Biological Conundrum

Since mutations can occur randomly, biologists expect larger lifeforms (those with more cells) to have greater chances of developing cancer than smaller lifeforms.

Strangely, no association exists.

It is one of biology’s biggest mysteries as to why massive creatures like whales or elephants rarely seem to experience cancer. This is called Peto’s Paradox. Even stranger: some smaller creatures, like the naked mole rat, are completely resistant to cancer.

This phenomenon motivates researchers to look into the genetics of naked mole rats and whales. And while we’ve discovered that special genetic bonuses (like extra tumor-suppressing genes) benefit these creatures, a pattern for cancer rates across all other species is still poorly understood.

Cancer May Be Closely Associated with Lifespan

Researchers at the Wellcome Sanger Institute report the first study to look at how mutation rates compare with animal lifespans.

Mutation rates are simply the speed at which species beget mutations. Mammals with shorter lifespans have average mutation rates that are very fast. A mouse undergoes nearly 800 mutations in each of its four short years on Earth. Mammals with longer lifespans have average mutation rates that are much slower. In humans (average lifespan of roughly 84 years), it comes to fewer than 50 mutations per year.

The study also compares the number of mutations at time of death with other traits, like body mass and lifespan. For example, a giraffe has roughly 40,000 times more cells than a mouse. Or a human lives 90 times longer than a mouse. What surprised researchers was that the number of mutations at time of death differed only by a factor of three.

Such small differentiation suggests there may be a total number of mutations a species can collect before it dies. Since the mammals reached this number at different speeds, finding ways to control the rate of mutations may help stall cancer development, set back aging, and prolong life.

The Future of Cancer Research

The findings in this study ignite new questions for understanding cancer.

Confirming that mutation rate and lifespan are strongly correlated needs comparison to lifeforms beyond mammals, like fishes, birds, and even plants.

It will also be necessary to understand what factors control mutation rates. The answer to this likely lies within the complexities of DNA. Geneticists and oncologists are continuing to investigate genetic curiosities like tumor-suppressing genes and how they might impact mutation rates.

Aging is likely to be a confluence of many issues, like epigenetic changes or telomere shortening, but if mutations are involved then there may be hopes of slowing genetic damage—or even reversing it.

While just a first step, linking mutation rates to lifespan is a reframing of our understanding of cancer development, and it may open doors to new strategies and therapies for treating cancer or taming the number of health-related concerns that come with aging.

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Space

All the Contents of the Universe, in One Graphic

We explore the ultimate frontier: the composition of the entire known universe, some of which are still being investigated today.

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The Composition of the Universe

All the Contents of the Universe, in One Graphic

Scientists agree that the universe consists of three distinct parts: everyday visible (or measurable) matter, and two theoretical components called dark matter and dark energy.

These last two are theoretical because they have yet to be directly measured—but even without a full understanding of these mysterious pieces to the puzzle, scientists can infer that the universe’s composition can be broken down as follows:

ComponentValue    
Dark energy68%
Dark matter27%
Free hydrogen and helium4%
Stars0.5%
Neutrinos0.3%
Heavy elements0.03%

Let’s look at each component in more detail.

Dark Energy

Dark energy is the theoretical substance that counteracts gravity and causes the rapid expansion of the universe. It is the largest part of the universe’s composition, permeating every corner of the cosmos and dictating how it behaves and how it will eventually end.

Dark Matter

Dark matter, on the other hand, has a restrictive force that works closely alongside gravity. It is a sort of “cosmic cement” responsible for holding the universe together. Despite avoiding direct measurement and remaining a mystery, scientists believe it makes up the second largest component of the universe.

Free Hydrogen and Helium

Free hydrogen and helium are elements that are free-floating in space. Despite being the lightest and most abundant elements in the universe, they make up roughly 4% of its total composition.

Stars, Neutrinos, and Heavy Elements

All other hydrogen and helium particles that are not free-floating in space exist in stars.

Stars are one of the most populous things we can see when we look up at the night sky, but they make up less than one percent—roughly 0.5%—of the cosmos.

Neutrinos are subatomic particles that are similar to electrons, but they are nearly weightless and carry no electrical charge. Although they erupt out of every nuclear reaction, they account for roughly 0.3% of the universe.

Heavy elements are all other elements aside from hydrogen and helium.

Elements form in a process called nucleosynthesis, which takes places within stars throughout their lifetimes and during their explosive deaths. Almost everything we see in our material universe is made up of these heavy elements, yet they make up the smallest portion of the universe: a measly 0.03%.

How Do We Measure the Universe?

In 2009, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched a space observatory called Planck to study the properties of the universe as a whole.

Its main task was to measure the afterglow of the explosive Big Bang that originated the universe 13.8 billion years ago. This afterglow is a special type of radiation called cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR).

Temperature can tell scientists much about what exists in outer space. When investigating the “microwave sky”, researchers look for fluctuations (called anisotropy) in the temperature of CMBR. Instruments like Planck help reveal the extent of irregularities in CMBR’s temperature, and inform us of different components that make up the universe.

You can see below how the clarity of CMBR changes over time with multiple space missions and more sophisticated instrumentation.
CMBR Instruments

What Else is Out There?

Scientists are still working to understand the properties that make up dark energy and dark matter.

NASA is currently planning a 2027 launch of the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, an infrared telescope that will hopefully help us in measuring the effects of dark energy and dark matter for the first time.

As for what’s beyond the universe? Scientists aren’t sure.

There are hypotheses that there may be a larger “super universe” that contains us, or we may be a part of one “island” universe set apart from other island multiverses. Unfortunately we aren’t able to measure anything that far yet. Unravelling the mysteries of the deep cosmos, at least for now, remains a local endeavor.

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Misc

Is it Possible to Bring Back Extinct Animal Species?

This graphic provides an introduction to de-extinction, a field of biology focused on reviving extinct animal species.

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Is it Possible to Bring Back Extinct Animal Species?

View a higher resolution version of this infographic.

Humanity has been tinkering with natural life for thousands of years.

We’ve become remarkably good at it, too—to date, we’ve modified bacteria to produce drugs, created crops with built-in pesticides, and even made a glow-in-the-dark dog.

However, despite our many achievements in the realm of genetic engineering, one thing we’re still working on is bringing extinct animals back to life.

But scientists are working on it. In fact, there’s a whole field of biology that’s focused on reviving extinct species.

This graphic provides a brief introduction to the fascinating field of science known as resurrection biology—or de-extinction.

The Benefits of De-Extinction

First thing’s first—what is the point of bringing back extinct animals?

There are a number of research benefits that come with de-extinction. For instance, some scientists believe studying previously extinct animals and looking at how they function could help fill some gaps in our current theories around evolution.

De-extinction could also have a beneficial impact on the environment. That’s because when an animal goes extinct, its absence has a ripple effect on all the flora and fauna involved in that animal’s food web.

Because of this, reintroducing previously extinct species back into their old ecosystems could help rebalance and restore off-kilter environments.

There’s even a possibility that de-extinction could slow down global warming. Scientist Sergey Zimov believes that, if we were to reintroduce an animal that’s similar to the woolly mammoth back to the tundra, it could help repopulate the area, regrow ancient plains, and possibly slow the melting of the ice caps.

How Does it Work?

The key element that’s needed to re-create a species is its DNA.

Unfortunately, DNA slowly degrades, and once it’s gone completely, there’s no way to recover it. Researchers believe DNA has a half-life of 521 years, so after 6.8 million years, it’s believed to be completely gone.

That’s why species like dinosaurs have virtually no chance of de-extinction. However, many organisms that went extinct more recently, like the dodo, could have a chance of conservation.

When it comes to de-extinction, there are three main techniques:

① Cloning

This is the only way to create an exact DNA replica of something.

However, a complete genome is needed for this, so this form of genetic rescue is most effective with recently-lost species, or species that are nearing extinction.

② Genome Editing

Genome editing is the manipulation of DNA to mimic extinct DNA.

There are several ways to do this, but in general, the process involves researchers manipulating the genomes of living species to make a new species that closely resembles an extinct one.

Because it’s not an exact copy of the extinct species’ DNA, this method will create a hybrid species that only resembles the extinct animal.

③ Back-Breeding

A form of breeding where a distinguishing trait from an extinct species (a horn or a color pattern) is bred back into living populations.

This requires the trait to still exist in some frequency in similar species, and the trait is selectively bred back into popularity.

Like genome editing, this method does not resurrect an extinct species, but resurrects the DNA and genetic diversity that gave the extinct species a distinguishing trait.

Is Bringing Back Extinct Animal Species Really Worth it?

While there’s a ton of buzz and potential around the idea of bringing back extinct animal species, there are a few critics that believe our efforts would be better spent on other things.

Research on the economics of de-extinction found that the money would go farther if it was invested into conservation programs for living species—approximately two to eight times more species could be saved if invested in existing conversation programs.

In an article in Science, Joseph Bennett, a biologist at Carleton University in Ottawa, said “if [a] billionaire is only interested in bringing back a species from the dead, power to him or her.”

Bennett added, “however, if that billionaire is couching it in terms of it being a biodiversity conservation, then that’s disingenuous. There are plenty of species out there on the verge of extinction now that could be saved with the same resources.”

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