​Fountain of youth? Starfish age slower when they reproduce by cloning, research says

Reuters / Natasha Elkington
Humans' search for the fountain of youth is nothing new – but now we may be one step closer to finding it. Swedish scientists say that starfish age at a slower rate if they reproduce through cloning, rather than sexually.

Unlike humans, starfish can reproduce through cloning or sexually. But those who create offspring the old-fashioned way are at a disadvantage when it comes to aging, according to researchers at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.

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The reason for this has been located in a starfish's telomeres – lengths of DNA found at the ends of chromosomes. They protect genetic data and make it possible for cells to divide.

Each time a cell divides, telomeres shorten in length. As they shorten, aging occurs.

But when starfish use cloning as a method of reproduction, newly formed tissue emerges longer than the old tissue.

“You can say that there is a rejuvenation of the telomere when new tissue is formed during cloning as opposed to sexual reproduction,” said Nilsson Sköld, one of the researchers behind the study, as quoted by The Local.

The key ingredient that allows for the rejuvenation is an enzyme known as telomaris, which regulates telomeres in the cloning process. It is absent when sexual reproduction takes place.

In 2011, Sköld found that sea squirts that reproduce by cloning are also capable of activating the enzyme.

“My research has shown that sea squirts rejuvenate themselves by activating the enzyme telomerase, and in this way extending their chromosomes and protecting their DNA,” Sköld explained at the time.

As for now, starfish will have to be the only known species to benefit from this fountain of youth, as humans have yet to be cloned. But who knows what the future holds?