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Google wants to use naked mole rats to find the secret to slow aging

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The secretive company has a colony of scientists — with a colony of naked mole rats — working to understand the slow creep toward death

mole rats in tube Courtesy of Dr. Thomas Park

Calico Labs — the mysterious life-extension research and development company backed by Google and pharmaceutical giant AbbVie — is harnessing a colony of walking, toothy scrotums known as naked mole rats to unlock the secrets of aging. It also has tapped leaders in genetics and biology to study mice, yeast, and worms in an ambitious mission to understand and extend the human lifespan, according to a recent look into the secretive workings of Calico reported today by MIT Technology Review.

Headquartered in San Francisco, but with partnerships spanning the country, Calico has an impressive budget for tackling these questions: $1.5 billion. They’ll need it — aging studies are notoriously time consuming and expensive, especially ones that involve mammals. After all, to study how an animal ages, you have to age it. That means keeping it alive for years on end.

With mice, that’s usually only a year and a half to two years. Calico and The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, have partnered to reportedly find a molecular signature of aging in the blood, feces, or urine of 1,000 mice. Just feeding those mice could cost $3 million, MIT Technology Review reported. And that doesn’t include housing, cage changes, and paying for the experiments and tests to look for a molecule that could tell scientists when an animal is aging, and when an intervention is working to slow or reverse that process.

For naked mole rats, these experiments could take even longer. The colony is separate from the Calico headquarters in San Francisco, across the Golden Gate at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato, California. Naked mole rats are interesting creatures to study when it comes to aging because they can live up to 30 years, much longer than other small mammals. These matriarchal poop-eaters are also (relatively) resistant to cancer.

Right now, Calico scientists are reportedly trying to sequence the naked mole rat genome. It’s possible that understanding this animal’s genetics could help scientists figure out how they’ve managed to cheat the aging process. The new gene-editing technique CRISPR-cas9 expands the range of creatures that scientists can genetically manipulate beyond the flies, mice, fish, and cells they were once restricted to. So, researchers might be able to investigate how changing different genes changes the naked mole rat lifespan. But a word of caution: there’s clearly a lot more going on when it comes to aging than just genetics.

Calico’s David Botstein told Tech Review’s Antonio Regalado that even if everything goes as planned, Calico won’t have any big news for the next 10 years. Hopefully, though, they let us in on what they’re working on in the meantime.