Marina Watowich, UW Biology graduate student, and Noah Snyder-Mackler, UW Biology Affiliate Assistant Professor, were featured in Inverse on their new research revealing a link between natural disasters and aging in monkeys.
Extreme weather events, such as hurricanes and other natural disasters, are becoming more and more frequent. These events have also been taking an increasingly grim toll on survivors' mental and physical health — including the non-humans animals that thrive in disaster-stricken areas.
In a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers analyzed changes to genes involved in the immune system in a group of rhesus macaque monkeys (Macaca mulatta) residing on the Puerto Rican island of Cayo Santiago before and after Hurricane Maria devastated the nation.
"We wanted to study aging after Hurricane Maria to see whether we found support, at the molecular level, for this idea that extreme adversity — particularly from natural disasters — can accelerate parts of the aging process," Marina Watowich, lead author on the study and a graduate student in the SMack Lab at the University of Washington, tells Inverse.
They found that adult macaques that lived through Hurricane Maria experienced accelerated aging, showing changes in their DNA corresponding with monkeys two years older than them. When scaled to humans' current average lifespan, that difference in gene expression translates to a whopping seven to eight years of human life.
The changes in DNA correspond with "natural changes in immune gene expression that occur with age," Noah Snyder-Mackler, a co-author on the study and an assistant professor at the Center for Evolution and Medicine at Arizona State University, tells Inverse.