How old are you?

In an article in the New York Times, Nicholas Wade points out that our bodies are younger than we think, because there is a discrepancy between our birth age and the age of the cells that make up our bodies

Whatever your age, your body is many years younger. In fact, even if you’re middle aged, most of you may be just 10 years old or less.

This heartening truth, which arises from the fact that most of the body’s tissues are under constant renewal, has been underlined by a novel method of estimating the age of human cells. Its inventor, Jonas Frisen, believes the average age of all the cells in an adult’s body may turn out to be as young as 7 to 10 years.

He quotes the work of Spalding, Bhardwaj, Buchhold, Druid, and Frisén of the Karolinska institute that uses the radioactive isotope carbon-14 to determine the age of the cells in bodies. Their paper appeared in the July 15, 2005 issue of Cell. They used carbon-14 dating to determine the age of cells. The carbon that forms organic matter is largely obtained from the atmosphere. Plants, for example, take in carbon dioxide from the air and exude oxygen as part of the process of photosynthesis. Hence the proportion of carbon-14 that is found in living organic matter is the same as that in the ambient atmosphere at the time it was absorbed. The level of the radioactive isotope carbon-14 that occurs in the atmosphere is fairly constant because its rate of production is balanced by the rate of decay. Once the plant dies, it does not take in any new carbon and the decay of the carbon-14 that it had at the moment of death results in a steadily smaller proportion of it and the difference can be used to measure how long it has been dead. The half-life of carbon-14 is 5,730 years and this method can be used to determine the age of dead organic matter up to about 50,000 years, which is a convenient range for archeological dating because it lies in the range required for those studies.

The way that Frisén and his co-workers used this knowledge to measure the age of cells in humans is quite clever. Carbon-14 is produced by cosmic rays and the level of carbon-14 in the atmosphere should be constant. This is why we can tell how long something has been dead but not when it was ‘born’, i.e., when the organic matter was created. But in the 1950s and 1960s, there was a sharp spike in carbon-14 levels because of the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. Once atmospheric test ban treaties came into came into being, the surge of carbon-14 that had been produced steadily became diffused in the atmosphere as it spread over the globe, and so there has been a steady decline in average carbon-14 levels over time. It is this that enables us to know when the carbon-14 was absorbed to create organic matter.

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The amount of carbon-14 in the genomic DNA can thus be used to measure when the DNA in the cell was created. The technique was checked against the age of trees which can be measured by the amounts of carbon-14 found in the various rings as the isotope is absorbed during photosynthesis. Their results and those of others show that different parts of the body get replaced after different durations, whose approximate values are given below. (I have included results from both the Wade newspaper article and the Frisen paper.)

Stomach lining: five days
Surface layer of skin: two weeks
Red blood cells: three months
Liver: one year
Skeleton: 10 years
Intestine: 11 years
Rib muscles: 15 years

This explains why our bodies seem so durable and able to withstand considerable abuse. [UPDATE: Later studies find that about 50% of our heart muscles are replaced over our lifetime, but the brain cells seem to be largely unchanged.]

So why do we die if parts of us keep getting regenerated? It seems as if the ability of stem cells to keep reproducing declines with age. In other words there seems to be a limit to the number of times that cells can reproduce and once we reach that limit, the ability of the body to regenerate itself ceases. What causes this limit is still an open question. As Wade writes:

Some experts believe the root cause is that the DNA accumulates mutations and its information is gradually degraded. Others blame the DNA of the mitochondria, which lack the repair mechanisms available for the chromosomes. A third theory is that the stem cells that are the source of new cells in each tissue eventually grow feeble with age.

Frisen thinks his research might be able to shed some light on this question, especially the third option, saying “The notion that stem cells themselves age and become less capable of generating progeny is gaining increasing support.”

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