It was one year ago that Yoda died. While he was smaller than most, carrying a mutation that disabled the production of three hormones required for normal growth, he did not appear to be sick. At the time, there was no apparent cause of his death. He was four years and twelve days old, and apparently healthy.
But Yoda had lived his entire life in a cage, part of ongoing life span research at the University of Michigan Medical School. When he celebrated his fourth birthday there, guests included Richard Miller, a professor of pathology in the geriatrics center, and Princess Leia, a female mouse and Yoda's constant companion. Yoda had already outlived three of his other playmates.
When he died, Yoda was the world's oldest lab mouse, and over the course of his life, he had provided important clues as to how genes and hormones affect the aging process and postpone associated diseases. Mice with genetic mutations like Yoda's seem to delay aging and develop diseases like cancer forty percent later than normal mice do, and researchers like Miller hope they will teach scientists something about how to slow these processes in humans. What scientists learn from rodents, they believe, will eventually be applied to human beings. This is the dream--no, the expectation--of Aubrey de Grey, a Cambridge University gerontologist and the founder of the Methuselah Mouse Prize, named for the 969-year-old patriarch whom de Grey, who is tall and lanky, with a beard tapering to a scraggly point at the middle of his chest, resembles.
The Methuselah Mouse Prize provides scientists the world over with a cash incentive--currently about $60,000--to produce the oldest mouse ever known to man. The "longevity prize" has a twofold objective: First, to encourage researchers to test genetic tweaks and drug interventions that could postpone aging in humans as well as mice; second, to generate public interest and enthusiasm for science that aims to extend life. Until the public takes the research seriously, de Grey believes, there will not be adequate funding or advocacy of anti-aging work by experts. "The whole point of the prize," says de Grey, "is to encourage people to try things that might not be considered plausible by the gerontology establishment."
It's been fourteen years since de Grey, a trained computer scientist, married Cambridge University geneticist Adelaide Carpenter, who studied various developmental and metabolic processes in fruit flies. Through her, de Grey learned of the biological and chemical factors that promote aging, mainly toxic metabolic byproducts that build up in the body over years. He found himself fantasizing about halting these toxins, which can slow and impede essential cellular processes in their tracks, and "began to realize that if science really focused on the problem, aging might not be that hard to intervene in."
So he attended conferences and meetings where a handful of scientists powwowed over beers, dreaming up ways to interest the public in anti-aging research. A prize for long-lived mice, they reasoned, would be ideal in several...