The work is based on a relatively new concept in aging research: that chemical modifications to a person’s DNA over a lifetime create what is known as an epigenetic clock. Scientists have built a case that one such modification, the addition of methyl groups to specific DNA sequences, tracks human biological age—that is, the toll that disease, poor lifestyle, and genetics take on our bodies. As a result, some groups have converted a person’s DNA methylation status to an age estimate—or even a prediction of life expectancy (worrying ethicists, who say the data could be misused by forensic investigators and insurance companies).
Other species also undergo DNA methylation as they age. Mice, chimpanzees, wolves, and dogs, for example, all seem to have epigenetic clocks. To find out how those clocks differ from the human version, geneticist Trey Ideker of the University of California, San Diego, and colleagues started with dogs. Even though man’s best friends diverged from humans early in mammalian evolution, they’re a good group for comparison because they live in the same environments and many receive similar healthcare and hospital treatments.
All dogs—no matter the breed—follow a similar developmental trajectory, reaching puberty around 10 months and dying before age 20. But to increase their chances of finding genetic factors associated with aging, Ideker’s team focused on a single breed: Labrador retrievers.
They scanned DNA methylation patterns in the genomes of 104 dogs, ranging from 4 weeks to 16 years of age. Their analysis revealed that dogs (at least Labrador retrievers) and humans do have similar age-related methylation of certain genomic regions with high mutation rates; those similarities were most apparent when the scientists looked at young dogs and young humans or old dogs and old humans. Most importantly, they found that certain groups of genes involved in development are similarly methylated during aging in both species. That suggests at least some aspects of aging are a continuation of development rather than a distinct process—and that at least some of these changes are evolutionarily conserved in mammals, Ideker and colleagues report in a preprint posted online at bioRxiv.
“We already knew that dogs get the same diseases and functional declines of aging that humans do, and this work provides evidence that similar molecular changes are also occurring during aging,” says Matt Kaeberlein, a biogerontologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, who was not involved with this research. “It’s a beautiful demonstration of the conserved features of the epigenetic age clocks shared by dogs and humans.”
The research team also used the rate of the methylation changes in dogs to match it to the human epigenetic clock, although the resulting dog age conversion is a bit more complex than “multiply by seven.” The new formula, which applies to dogs older than one, says that a canine’s human age roughly equals 16 ln (dog age) + 31. (That’s the natural logarithm of the dog’s real age, multiplied by 16, with 31 added to the total.)