The reason that studying ageing is difficult it because the models that are traditionally used like mice, have reasonably long life expectancies. This means that when scientists kick-off an experiment, such as studying diabetes, they need to wait several years. Sometimes alternative models can be used, like worms. However, these do not share the same physiology of more sophisticated animals and they can only be used for a limited range of studies. In terms of the “middle ground”, one research group have put forwards an alternative: the short-lived African turquoise killifish.
The African turquoise killifish (Nothobranchius furzeri) inhabits pools in semi-arid areas in Africa. Here rainfall is scarce and the fish numbers survive through the laying of desiccation-resistant eggs. Due to the very short rain season, the natural lifespan of the fish is only a few months. The fish is also quite small, less than 3 inches in length.
By utilizing new genome editing tools, scientists have produced a package that allows killifish to be used experimentally. The method is a type of CRISPRs, which is an acronym for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.” This has come about because scientists now know the full complement of the genes of the fish. They are also able to alter and mutate these genes in order to understand what happens as the fish ages.
The first project has studied a human disease called dyskeratosis congenita, which is due to deficits in a complex involved in maintaining the end of chromosomes, or telomeres. The result is defects in blood, gut, and display fertility problems. The fish can be engineered to show the same problems
The first study has been reported to the journal Cell. The research is titled “A Platform for Rapid Exploration of Aging and Diseases in a Naturally Short-Lived Vertebrate.”