A team of scientists at UCLA reports that alcohol may be a potential fountain of youth—at least for worm larvae, that is. The research, published online in the open-access medical journal PLoS ONE, found that small amounts of ethanol improved the survival of roundworm larvae—the young form of the nematode C. elegans—though with some limitations.
The ability of organisms to withstand stress is a topic of intense study. Researchers know that creatures that can tolerate adverse environmental conditions, such as starvation, increased temperatures and overcrowding, tend to live comparatively longer.
In the current study, Steven Clarke, a UCLA biochemistry professor, and his team subjected the worm larvae to starvation stress. Initially, Clarke's laboratory wanted to test the effect of cholesterol on the worms, to see if it could extend lifespan. When the scientists fed the worms cholesterol, the worms lived longer.
But the team had dissolved the cholesterol in ethanol, often used as a solvent. Further testing showed the cholesterol itself had no effect, but low doses of ethanol extended the worms' lifespan, from 12 days to as long as 40 days. How low a dose? Equivalent to one beer in a hundred gallons of water, according to Clarke.
"Low concentrations of ethanol allowed these larvae to survive much longer," explained Clarke in an interview with Wine Spectator. "We see these results as minute concentrations of ethanol being able to give the larvae more time to search in their soil environment for a bacterial food source that will sustain them through the entire course of development."
These worms that thrived with alcohol in the larval stage, "may even experience a very modest increase in adult longevity," speculated Clark, who believes the observations may be explained in one of two ways.
The first is that low levels of ethanol can provide enough of an energy and carbon source to allow the larvae to survive longer. The second is that ethanol causes a genetic signal that kick starts a kind of protective survival response in C. elegans.
The team could observe that the earthworm larvae were able to convert ethanol into fatty acids, amino acids and other metabolites. Furthermore, the study notes that the consumption of ethanol is not an adequate substitution for food and that more research is needed.
"If we can do further work and establish the mechanism in C. elegans, we could then ask whether a similar mechanism would be possible or not in humans, and if it were possible, then further studies could be done in that direction," said Clarke.
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