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Networks in the Biology of Aging: Powerful Tools for a Complex Process

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Aging is a fundamental biological process of great interest. However, despite a tremendous research effort, there are still many unknowns when it comes to understanding even the basic mechanisms that underlie this trait. On the one hand, as this book illustrates, there is much hope—several signaling pathways have now been shown to greatly influence aging and lifespan in diverse organisms, including mammals. These findings suggest that at least some aging pathways have been conserved over deep evolutionary time and that lessons learned from yeast, worms, flies, and mice could well apply to humans. On the other hand, perhaps more than any other widely studied biological phenomenon, both the causes and consequences of aging are exceedingly complex.

The complex nature of aging means that a single genetic or environmental perturbation will not guarantee an increase in healthy days (for yeast or worms) or years (for humans). Rather, the underlying mechanisms of aging are likely to include many pathways, and the interactions among those pathways are likely to take place within and across many different levels of organization, from DNA and RNA to proteins, to metabolites, and ultimately to the physiological processes—and the failure of these processes—that determine whether an organism lives or dies.

In this chapter, we argue that a focus on molecular networks has the potential to help us understand the proximate mechanisms of aging and age-related diseases and to explain at least some of the enormous variation in patterns of aging that we see in genetically variable populations. Moreover, we suggest that by examining the way in which network structure or function both shapes and is shaped by aging, we can refine theoretical models, and so better explain the proximate and evolutionary determinants of aging.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: February 1, 2014

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