Naked mole rats are helping Google figure out how to cheat death

More than a few billionaires have sought the key to longer human life. Larry Ellison, for example, spent $335 million of his foundation’s money on anti-aging research, and investor Peter Thiel has also doled out some cash to find ways to help humans live longer.

Now, it appears that Google’s co-founders are interested in pursuing the dream of immortality. The California Life Company, or Calico, was formed in 2013 to study longevity as a long-term research project. And the firm, funded by Google and pharmaceutical company Abbvie, is using the long-lived naked mole rat to uncover the secrets of how some animals live longer than others, as MIT Technology Review reports.

The ultra-secretive Calico serves as an amalgam of biotechnology, technology, and academics who are looking to merge diverse fields such as artificial intelligence, genetics, and basic biological research in the search for longevity. One of the company’s first employees, Cynthia Kenyon, was instrumental in flipping a single DNA letter and causing roundworms to live six weeks instead of three — at least in the lab.

Daphne Koller, on the other hand, is an artificial intelligence expert, and Google’s parent company Alphabet is providing both financial support and, presumably, technological expertise to the project. The result is a sort of skunkworks aimed at extending the human lifespan in much the same way as disparate fields came together to create the transistor.

MIT Technology Review characterizes the company as “elite university research housed within a corporate bunker.” The firm enjoys the luxury of engaging in the basic research without the need to provide returns on investment. its research into determining why naked mole rats live 30 years while other similar rodents live 10 is a prime example. Another involves following 1,000 mice from birth to death to uncover the biomarkers of aging.

Ultimately, Calico’s first objective isn’t so much to identify ways to make humans live longer as it is to discover why we only live as long as we do. Because the company receives such significant funding for this kind of basic research, its scientists and technology experts can delve into the most basic biological questions. Not everyone in the field of human aging agrees with Calico’s approach, but then again that’s the benefit of enjoying the largesse of such deep pockets.


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