The goal of my lab’s work is to understand how we can better maintain quality of life as we age. We use the nematode C. elegans to model human aging, because we share most of our genes with this small nematode, yet they live only a few weeks and exhibit many of the same characteristics of aging that we experience. These phenotypes include cognitive aging, reproductive aging, neurodegenerative diseases, pathogenesis, and life span. We are also interested in the systemic interactions between bacteria, which serve as the worm’s food source but can also be pathogens—and C. elegans’ life history decisions. We use a variety of behavioral, genetic, genomic, and biochemical methods in our studies.
As an Innovation Fund investigator, Coleen T. Murphy, Ph.D., is teaming with Roberto Ricardo Grau, Ph.D., to explore how beneficial bacteria in the gut influence longevity. The intestinal flora, or the makeup of the different microbial species in the gut, can change over time because of diet, illness, or other factors. A healthy balance of “good” or probiotic bacteria not only is critical for maintaining health but also has potential for prolonging life and preventing age-related decline. Combining their expertise in aging research and bacteriology, the pair will explore how beneficial bacteria may modify the activity of age-related genes using the model organisms Caenorhabditis elegans and Bacillus subtilis. The Murphy lab has developed an excellent model to study the key effects of aging in C. elegans and in its previous work revealed a signaling pathway that can control age-related deterioration in the organism. Grau, who has extensive experience in the study of the probiotic bacterium B. subtilis, uncovered that B. subtilis that colonized the gut of C. elegans expanded the life span of the organism compared with non-probiotic species. Using state-of-the-art molecular techniques and behavioral assays, the team will determine how B. subtilis activates host pathways to promote health and longevity and improve intestinal flora. This work has the potential to uncover conserved pathways between worms and humans, which may translate to novel means of delaying the effects of human aging.