The Ageing of Cells May Be Due to Errors that Harm Protein Production

Older cells may fail to make proteins or may make proteins that don’t function as they should, in a discovery that could lead to new drug targets to slow the ageing process.

Payel Sen at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland previously found that control over gene expression breaks down in yeast and worm cells when they stop dividing but still produce energy, known as senescent cells. In people, previous studies have shown that the number of senescent cells increases as we age.

To uncover a potential link between impaired gene expression and senescent cells in people, Sen and her colleagues took cultured lung cells from a donated human fetus and made them divide so frequently that they became senescent in three months, mimicking the ageing process.

The researchers found that these fetal senescent cells gave rise to very short RNA transcripts. These may then fail to make proteins that dont act as they should, says Sen, who hopes to investigate this further in the future.

Increased variability in the gene expression that makes these short transcripts has been linked to ageing, but we dont know what’s going on, says Sen. 

“This study shows that the precise control of transcription breaks down with ageing,” says Bérénice Benayoun at the University of Southern California. This could provide us with a new target for drug development to manipulate the ageing process, she says.


Sen, P., Donahue, G., Li, C., Egervari, G., Yang, N., Lan, Y., Robertson, N., P. Sha, P., Kerkhoven, E., Schultz, D. C., Adams, P. D., & L. Berger, S. (2023). Spurious intragenic transcription is a feature of mammalian cellular senescence and tissue aging. Nature Aging.

Murugesu, J. A. (2023, March 30). The ageing of cells may be due to errors that harm protein production. New Scientist.

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Photo by Corina Rainer