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Our Impact - Aging

Foundational research unlocking secrets surrounding aging

Microscopy image of zebrafish
The lateral line of zebrafish is formed by round volcano-shaped organs called neuromasts, which detect the water movement. This is due to the presence of specialized cells called hair cells (labeled with sqet4 in green, in the middle of the organ). The hair cells are surrounded by support cells and mantle cells (labeled with sqet20 in green, forming a ring on the outer part of the organ). Cell nuclei are labeled using H2A-mCherry (in red)

Zebrafish hair cells regenerate after injury or loss, unlike their counterparts in the human inner ear.

To us as humans, aging may seem like a natural part of existence, but in fact many organisms, can be described as biologically immortal.

Our research has yielded findings with implications for addressing a broad scope of age-related conditions such as inflammation, hearing loss, glaucoma, and the loss of the sense of smell. Pioneering research on molecules that control the formation and loss of bone helped lay groundwork for a new type of osteoporosis treatment called romosozumab.

Our research also focuses on aspects of regeneration, the ability of adult stem cells to reproduce many different kinds of cells. We study flatworms, apple snails, killifish and zebrafish to better understand how these unusual cells and animals accomplish such feats, providing possible blueprints for activating these abilities in new contexts and other species.

Factors associated with aging

The advent of antibiotics to treat childhood ailments, along with medical advances in treating various conditions like cancer and heart disease means humans are living longer—nearly twice as long today than around a century ago. As lifespan has increased, so too have presently incurable diseases and conditions like hearing loss, neurodegenerative diseases, and osteoporosis. Scientists at the Stowers Institute are actively investigating foundational biological processes underlying these sequelae of aging, with the hope of furthering our understanding and fostering future treatments and cures. 

Aging and hearing

The cells that help humans hear – by transmitting sound waves to the brain—are called hair cells. We are born with all the hair cells we will ever have. As we age or incur damage, like prolonged exposure to sound above threshold volumes, these cells die and do not grow back. However, some species can regenerate these crucial sensory organ cells. Zebrafish have sensory organs called neuromasts dotted along the length of their bodies. Sensory hair cells within neuromasts responsible for detecting water motion are not only able to regenerate but are also remarkably similar in structure and function to hair cells lining our inner ears. Stowers Investigator Tatjana Piotrowski, Ph.D., investigates the genetic and molecular underpinnings that facilitate their regeneration, with the hope to enable this mechanism in humans.

Aging and memory

Most neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, and ALS, are correlated with aging. Memory loss and forgetfulness can also increase as we age. While memory loss associated with neurodegeneration may be largely genetic in nature, there are steps that can be taken to reduce the probability of developing dementia or, at the very least, delay the onset of the disease. Leading a healthy lifestyle, like exercising, diet, sleep, and stress management are all linked with improved cognitive function. Stowers Institute Scientific Director Kausik Si, Ph.D., studies how we form and retain memory by looking at amyloids as a substrate of long-term memory. Additionally, Associate Investigator Randal Halfmann, Ph.D., is focused on uncovering the first step in the formation of harmful amyloids, whose accumulation in the brain are hallmarks of diseases like Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s.

Aging and bone health

Humans have 206 bones in their bodies composed of various cell types and minerals like calcium and phosphorus. As adults, our bones continuously balance destruction and renewal. However, as we age, bone density, or the amount of minerals comprising bone mass, decreases leading to conditions like osteoporosis that greatly increase the risk of fractures. Stowers Investigator Robb Krumlauf, Ph.D., investigates a conserved group of genes called Hox genes that are critical during brain development and the signals that guide them. Research on one particular signal called Wnt that forms pathways guiding gene regulation revealed an unexpected discovery. The pathway also controlled bone formation. This pioneering discovery contributed to the development of a new therapeutic treatment for osteoporosis called romosozumab. Approved by the FDA in 2019, this is the first type of treatment to both foster bone growth and decrease bone loss, and a prime example of how foundational biological research can lead to impact.

Additional aging factors

Aging is also implicated in many additional ailments including diabetes, cancer, inflammation, and infertility. These are primary focuses of Stowers scientists and are paving the way toward future impact. Learn more about the Institute's research surrounding these conditions at the links below.


Ageless Animals

What can we learn from animals that are “immortal”? Stowers scientists are trying to find out.

A closeup of a scientist looking into a microscope

From coral to bacteria and planarian flatworms to nematostella, understanding the mechanisms underlying immortality may one day make it possible to delay the inevitable, or at the very least diminish aging’s impacts on health.

Read the story

Learn more about our impact on other research areas


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