Background: Numerous gerontogene mutants leading to dramatic life extensions have been identified in the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans over the last 20 years. Analysis of these mutants has provided a basis for understanding the mechanisms driving the aging process(es). Several distinct mechanisms including an altered rate of aging, increased resistance to stress, decreased metabolic rate, or alterations in a program causing organismic aging and death have been proposed to underlie these mutants.
Results: Whole-genome analysis of gene expression during chronological aging of the worm provides a rich database of age-specific changes in gene expression and represents one way to distinguish among these models. Using a rigorous statistical model with multiple replicates, we find that a relatively small number of genes (only 164) show statistically significant changes in transcript levels as aging occurs (<1% of the genome). Expression of heat shock proteins decreases, while expression of certain transposases increases in older worms, and these findings are consistent with a higher mortality risk due to a failure in homeostenosis and destabilization of the genome in older animals. Finally, a specific subset of genes is coordinately altered both during chronological aging and in the transition from the reproductive form to the dauer, demonstrating a mechanistic overlap in aging between these two processes.
Conclusions: We have performed a whole-genome analysis of changes in gene expression during aging in C. elegans that provides a molecular description of C. elegans senescence.