Scientists Engineer Clock That Extends Lifespan

Daniel Patrick
6 Min Read

Three years ago, researchers at the University of California San Diego uncovered the specific biological pathways behind the ageing process. They have now extended this research further and found a way to genetically manipulate these processes to prolong the life of cells.

Slowing Down Time

Our biological clocks, also known as circadian rhythms, play a significant role in regulating our sleep, mood, and overall health.

They align with real-world time, giving us the energy we need to function throughout the day, as well as the sleep and recovery we need at night. 

Scientists at UC San Diego have discovered a ‘smart ageing process’ that extends cell life by changing the mechanisms behind cell deterioration.

The study uncovers the method of engineering cellular clocks, and could pave the way for significant advancements in the treatment and prevention of age-related diseases.

But it also poses some philosophical questions and considerations as to how we manage a world with longer-living humans.

How They Did It

The researchers genetically rewired the circuits of cell ageing from a normal ‘toggle-switch’ role to a negative feedback loop, which stalled the ageing process. 

The rewired circuit operates as a clock-like device called a gene oscillator, which causes the cell to periodically switch between two ‘aged’ states, avoiding prolonged commitment to either and therefore slowing the cell’s overall degeneration.

Yeast cells that were synthetically rewired and aged under the oscillator device resulted in an 82% increase in lifespan compared with control cells, setting a new record for genetically engineered life extension.

Human, animal, plant and yeast cells all contain gene regulatory circuits that are responsible for many physiological functions, including ageing.

“These gene circuits can operate like our home electric circuits that control devices like appliances and automobiles,” said Professor Nan Hao of the School of Biological Sciences’ Department of Molecular Biology, the senior author of the study and co-director of UC San Diego’s Synthetic Biology Institute.

Scientists have been able to manipulate these genes using CRISPR technology. 

CRISPR is a genome editing tool that can be used to find specific pieces of DNA inside a cell, alter them, and switch them on or off.

“This is the first time computationally guided synthetic biology and engineering principles were used to rationally redesign gene circuits and reprogram the ageing process to effectively promote longevity,” said Hao.

The discovery could reveal the potential for treatment and prevention of age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. By manipulating the body’s internal clock, it may be possible to prevent or delay the onset of these diseases. 

Additionally, this technology could lead to increased life spans and healthier ageing, allowing people to enjoy a higher quality of life in their later years.

Changing Perceptions of Time

Time is the measurement we apply to the constant movements and cycles of everything in our universe. But one of the valuable things about life is that it is finite. 

We have a certain amount of time to achieve the things we want to in life and create memories, it’s a motivator. 

When we push the limits of life further and further with technology, what effects could this have on the way we live? And what effects could it have on our overall health?

How Longer Living Humans Could Re-shape Society

The prospect of humans living longer could have profound biological, societal, economic, and sustainability ramifications.

Positive or negative, there are many things to consider in the discussion.

From a health standpoint, extended lifespans would require advancements in healthcare to address age-related diseases and promote healthy ageing. Which could spark innovations in regenerative medicine, genetic therapies, and personalised healthcare interventions. 

Societally, a significant increase in longevity could reshape demographics, workforce dynamics, and social structures. 

Economic implications would include the need for sustainable pension and retirement systems, reimagined career paths, and potential shifts in productivity and consumption patterns. 

Geopolitically, countries with longer-living populations may face unique challenges in healthcare resource allocation, social security frameworks, and intergenerational equity. 

Sustainability concerns would also arise, demanding careful resource management, environmental stewardship, and adaptation to changing societal needs.

With longer lives and more time, young people may feel less pressure to ‘get their life together’ in their early years. Likewise, older people may feel like they have more of a second chance in life.


The advantages of this research are widespread, thought-provoking and exciting, and there are many implications to consider, as well as much more research needed.

Overall, the potential to increase longevity, minimise the impact of age-related diseases and increase the quality of life for many is a positive step forward. But the required re-imaging and restructuring of society, as a result, remains ambiguous.

Balancing the multifaceted ramifications of extended lifespan requires interdisciplinary collaboration, strategic foresight, and ethical considerations to ensure there isn’t just an emphasis on prolonged life, but also meaningful, equitable, and sustainable life.


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