Today, I did something a bit special. I went out with a pointy little gardening shovel and some plastic bags to get soil samples for the LysoSENS research project.
LysoSENS is the latest Methuselah Foundation initiative aimed at tackling age-related storage diseases. These diseases, informally also called “junk” diseases, are caused by the accumulation of some pathogenic material in the body. With advancing age our bodies cannot degrade or remove this junk. Examples of candidate age-related storage diseases include
* Heart disease and stroke – cholesterol and oxidized cholesterol in the artery wall
* Alzheimer’s disease – Beta-amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles in the brain
* Age-related macular degeneration – Lipofuscin of the retinal pigment epithelium
* Diabetes – Extracellular matrix protein crosslinks, due to exposure of the tissue to high sugar levels
In every case, it is thought that the selective removal of the respective substances would be extremely beneficial, although obviously nobody has directly tested this. LysoSENS is an attempt to do just that, in the worst case paving the ground for rethinking what age-related storage diseases are all about, and in the best case providing a cure for them.
So how is LysoSENS supposed to work? In brief, we are looking for enzymes capable of selectively degrading the respective target material in the environment. This idea is heavily inspired by the field of environmental bioremediation (using microbes to degrade environmental contaminants). We are working in the lab of Bruce Rittmann, a well-known environmental engineer, as he has the expertise to find microbes that degrade weird stuff. We hope that we can isolate enzymes from these microbes and deliver them in a manner similar to current FDA-approved treatments for heritable lysosome storage diseases, where the missing enzyme is tagged with certain sugars for targeting and then injected into the bloodstrem. You can learn more about the LysoSENS strategy from its originator and Methuselah Foundation chairperson Aubrey de Grey here (quick and easy) or here (detailed and technical).
Since they are looking for bacteria able to eat “junk” that our bodies are not able to degrade, a good place to look is cemeteries because we know that decomposing bodies don’t leave behind that “junk”; meaning that some organisms have filled that niche and are having lunch on it.
So I went out to three different cemeteries around town and collected soil samples. I took some notes on where and when I picked them up, packaged the whole thing (including a mini-Toblerone chocolate bar for the researchers) and mailed it to the Biodesign Institute in Arizona. It’s an easy way to help, and the more samples they get from varied and exotic ecosystems around the world, the more chances they have of finding the right bacteria and enzymes to cure these horrible age-related diseases mentioned above.
I encourage you to do the same, especially if you live somewhere interesting from a biodiversity point of view (near hot springs, near historical mass-graves, in a tropical jungle, etc). But even if you live somewhere “boring”, give it a shot. You never know, maybe your sample will contain the holy grail of junk-eating bacteria.
All the information you need, including instructions on how to collect the samples and where to mail them, is on this webpage: LysoSENS.
Update: LysoSENS Update.