Researchers can accurately determine how old someone is on the basis of DNA tuning. They use a so-called epigenetic clock for this. ‘Master’s student Thomas Jonkman has now, nine years after its discovery, unraveled exactly how this clock works: it turns out that it keeps track of the aging of our immune system. With this knowledge, the clock can be used much more meaningfully, for example to track down people with a vulnerable immune system’, the LUMC reported on Friday.
Determining the age very accurately
The epigenetic tuning of our DNA, which genes are ‘on’ or ‘off’, is determined by molecular dimmers attached to the DNA. This DNA tuning changes throughout life. Using machine learning, researchers have developed a so-called epigenetic clock based on such changes. This makes it possible to determine a person’s age very accurately on the basis of a DNA sample. This is useful for forensic research, but biomedical applications lagged behind because the working of the clock was not yet fully understood.
Old and young immune cells
The Leiden Master’s student of Biomedical Sciences Thomas Jonkman has now discovered how the clock works: you can read how old your immune system is. ‘We used blood samples from more than 3000 people to find out exactly which biological processes change when this clock is ticking. These turned out to be processes specific to young, fresh immune cells or old, exhausted immune cells’, explains Jonkman. The clock therefore determines the age of a person based on the ratio between old and young immune cells in the blood.
This research is an important step in the application of the clock, believes Professor of Population Epigenetics Bas Heijmans. ‘We know that in some people the age is estimated by the clock to be older than the actual age, and vice versa. So are these people biologically younger or older?’ To find out whether this difference is a measure of health, the researchers want to focus as a next step on whether the clock can detect people with a vulnerable immune system. ‘We know how important that is because of the corona pandemic,’ says Heijmans.
According to Heijmans, researchers such as Jonkman, who can smartly combine and analyze large-scale data, are crucial for such research. Jonkman will therefore continue his research as a PhD student in the Heijmans group.
Publication in Genome Biology
The research is published in the leading scientific journal Genome Biology and made possible in part by the US National Institutes of Health and BBMRI-NL, an NWO-funded collaboration between Dutch research institutes to make research material and data from population studies available for health research. The data analyzes were performed on SurfSara’s high-performance computing facilities.
Leiden master’s student breaks epigenetic clock that predicts age
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