The cell biology of aging

Clin Geriatr Med. 1985 Feb;1(1):15-27.


It is only within the past ten years that biogerontology has become attractive to a sufficient number of biologists so that the field can be regarded as a seriously studied discipline. Cytogerontology, or the study of aging at the cellular level, had its genesis about 20 years ago when the dogma that maintained that cultured normal cells could replicate forever was overturned. Normal human and animal cells have a finite capacity to replicate and function whether they are cultured in vitro or transplanted as grafts in vivo. This phenomenon has been interpreted to be aging at the cellular level. Only abnormal somatic cells are capable of immortality. In recent years it has been found that the number of population doublings of which cultured normal cells are capable is inversely proportional to donor age. There is also good evidence that the number of population doublings of cultured normal fibroblasts is directly proportional to the maximum lifespan of ten species that have been studied. Cultures prepared from patients with accelerated aging syndromes (progeria and Werner's syndrome) undergo far fewer doublings than do those of age-matched controls. The normal human fibroblast cell strain WI-38 was established in 1962 from fetal lung, and several hundred ampules of these cells were frozen in liquid nitrogen at that time. These ampules have been reconstituted periodically and shown to be capable of replication. This represents the longest period of time that a normal human cell has ever been frozen. Normal human fetal cell strains such as WI-38 have the capacity to double only about 50 times. If cultures are frozen at various population doublings, the number of doublings remaining after reconstitution is equal to 50 minus the number of doublings that occurred prior to freezing. The memory of the cells has been found to be accurate after 23 years of preservation in liquid nitrogen. Normal human cells incur many physiologic decrements that herald the approach of their failure to divide. Many of these functional decrements are identical to decrements found in humans as they age. Thus it is likely that these decrements are also the precursors of age changes in vivo. The finite replicative capacity of normal cells is never seen to occur in vivo because aging and death of the individual occurs well before the doubling limit is reached.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aging*
  • Animals
  • Cell Division
  • Cell Survival*
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Chickens
  • Fibroblasts / cytology
  • Humans
  • Life Expectancy
  • Mitosis
  • Myocardium / cytology
  • Progeria / etiology
  • Werner Syndrome / etiology