When Lynne Maquat, who leads the Center for RNA Biology at the University of Rochester, became interested in the ribonucleic acid molecule in the 1970s, she was definitely in the minority. The same was true for Joan Steitz, now professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale University, who began to study RNA a decade earlier in the 1960s.
"My first RNA experiment was a failure, because we didn't understand how things worked," Steitz recalls. In her first undergraduate experiment, she unwittingly used a lab preparation that destroyed the RNA. "Unknowingly, our preparation contained enzymes that degraded our RNA."
At the time, scientists pursuing genetic research tended to focus on DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid — and for good reason. It was clear that the enigmatic double-helix ribbon held the answers to organisms' heredity, genetic traits, development, growth and aging. If scientists could decipher the secrets of DNA and understand how its genetic instructions translate into the body's functions in health and disease, they could develop treatments for all kinds of diseases. On the contrary, the prevailing dogma of the time viewed RNA as merely a helper that passively carried out DNA's genetic instructions for protein-making — so it received much less attention.
But Maquat and Steitz weren't interested in heredity. They studied biochemistry and biophysics, so they wanted to understand how RNA functioned on the molecular level — how it carried instructions, catalyzed reactions, and helped build protein bonds, among other things.
"I'm a mechanistic biochemist, so I like to know how things happen," Maquat says. "Once you understand the mechanism, you can think of how to solve problems." And so the quest to understand how RNA does its job became the focus of both women's careers.
"People can now appreciate why some of us studied RNA for such a long time."
Half a century later, in 2021, their RNA work has earned two prestigious recognitions only months from each other. In February, they received the Wolf Prize in Medicine, followed by the Warren Alpert Foundation Prize in May, awarded to scientists whose achievements led to prevention, cure or treatments of human diseases.
It was the development of the COVID-19 vaccines that made RNA a household name. Made by Moderna and Pfizer, the vaccines use the RNA molecule to deliver genetic instructions for making SARS-CoV-2's characteristic spike protein in our cells. The presence of this foreign-looking protein triggers the immune system to attack and remember the pathogen. As the vaccines reached the finish line, RNA took center stage, and it was Maquat's and Steitz's research that helped reveal how these molecular cogwheels drive many biological functions within cells.
If you think of a cell as a kingdom, the DNA plays the role of a queen. Like a monarch in a palace, DNA nestles inside the cell's nucleus issuing instructions needed for the cell to function. But no queen can successfully govern without her court, her messengers, and her soldiers, as well as other players that make her kingdom work. That's what RNAs do — they act as the DNA's vassals. They carry instructions for protein assembly, catalyze reactions and supervise many other processes to make sure the cellular kingdom performs as it should.
There are a myriad of these RNA vassals in our cells, and each type has its own specific task. There are messenger RNAs that deliver genetic instructions for protein synthesis from DNA to ribosomes, the cells' protein-making factories. There are ribosomal RNAs that help stitch together amino acids to make proteins. There are transfer RNAs that can bring amino acids to this protein synthesis machine, keeping it going. Then there are circular RNAs that act as sponges, absorbing proteins to help regulate the activity of genes. And that's only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to RNA diversity, researchers say.
"We know what the most abundant and important RNAs are doing," says Steitz. "But there are thousands of different ones, and we still don't have a full knowledge of them."
Critical to RNA's proper functioning is a process called splicing, in which a precursor mRNA is transformed into mature, fully-functional mRNA — a phenomenon that Steitz's work helped elucidate. The splicing process, which takes place in cellular assembly lines, involves removing extra RNA sequences and stringing the remaining RNA pieces together. Steitz found that tiny RNA particles called snRNPs are crucial to this process. They act as handy helpers, finding and removing errant genetic material from the mRNA molecules.
A dysfunctional RNA assembly line leads to diseases, including many cancers. For instance, Steitz found that people with Lupus — an autoimmune disorder — have antibodies that mistakenly attack the little snRNP helpers. She also discovered that when snRNPs don't do their job properly, they can cause what scientists call mis-splicing, producing defective mRNAs.
Fortunately, cells have a built-in quality-control process that can spot and correct these mistakes, which is what Maquat studied in her work. In 1981, she discovered a molecular quality-control system that spots and destroys such incorrectly assembled mRNA. With the cryptic name "nonsense-mediated mRNA decay" or NMD, this process is vital to the health and wellbeing of a cellular kingdom in humans — because splicing mistakes happen far more often than one would imagine.
"We estimate that about a third of our mRNA are mistakes," Maquat says. "And nonsense-mediated mRNA decay cleans up these mistakes." When this quality-control system malfunctions, defective mRNA forge faulty proteins, which mess up the cellular machinery and cause disease, including various forms of cancer.
Scientists' newfound appreciation of RNA opens door to many novel treatments.
Now that the first RNA-based shots were approved, the same principle can be used for create vaccines for other diseases, the two RNA researchers say. Moreover, the molecule has an even greater potential — it can serve as a therapeutic target for other disorders. For example, Spinraza, a groundbreaking drug approved in 2016 for spinal muscular atrophy, uses small snippets of synthetic genetic material that bind to the RNA, helping fix splicing errors. "People can now appreciate why some of us studied RNA for such a long time," says Maquat.
Steitz is thrilled that the entire field of RNA research is enjoying the limelight. "I'm delighted because the prize is more of a recognition of the field than just our work," she says. "This is a more general acknowledgment of how basic research can have a remarkable impact on human health."
Rochelle "Shelley" Buffenstein has one of the world's largest, if not the largest, lab-dwelling colonies of the naked mole rat. (No one has done a worldwide tabulation, but she has 4,500 of them.) Buffenstein has spent decades studying the little subterranean-dwelling rodents. Over the years, she and her colleagues have uncovered one surprising discovery after another, which has led them to re-orient the whole field of anti-aging research.
Naked mole rats defy everything we thought we knew about aging. These strange little rodents from arid regions of Africa, such as Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, live up to ten times longer than their size would suggest. And unlike virtually every other animal, they don't lose physical or cognitive abilities with age, and even retain their fertility up until the end of life. They appear to have active defenses against the ravages of time, suggesting that aging may not be inevitable. Could these unusual creatures teach humans how to extend life and ameliorate aging?
Buffenstein, who is senior principle investigator at Calico Life Sciences, has dedicated her life to finding out. Her early interest in the animals of what is now Zimbabwe led to her current position as a cutting-edge anti-aging researcher at Calico, the Google-funded health venture launched in 2013. The notoriously secretive company is focused on untangling the mysteries of why animals and people age, and whether there are ways to slow or temporarily arrest the process.
The small, wrinkly animal, which lives in underground burrows in the hot, arid regions of Africa, is hardly the beauty queen of the mammalian kingdom. Furless, buck-toothed and tiny-eyed, the creatures look like they could use a good orthodontist, a protective suit of clothes and possibly, some spectacles to enhance their eyesight. But these rats more than make up for their unimpressive looks with their superlative ability to adapt to some of the most inhospitable conditions on earth.
Based on the usual rule that body size predicts lifespan, naked mole rats shouldn't live that long. After all, similarly-sized rodents like mice have a life expectancy of two years or less. But Buffenstein was one of the first scientists to recognize that naked mole rats live an extraordinarily long time, with her oldest animal approaching 39 years of age. In addition, they never become geriatric in the human sense, defying the common signs of aging — age-related diseases, cognitive decline and even menopause. In fact, the queens, or females that do all the breeding in a bee-like underground colony, remain fertile and give birth to healthy pups up until what would be considered very old age in humans. And the naked mole rat has other curious abilities, such as the ability to endure extreme low-oxygen, or hypoxic, conditions like those they encounter in their underground nests.
"One thing we've learned from these animals is that they stay healthy until the very end."
It's not that the naked mole rat isn't subject to the vicissitudes of life, or the normal wear and tear of biological processes. Over the years, Buffenstein and her colleagues have discovered that, while the process of oxidative stress — thought for 50 years to be the main cause of aging — occurs in the naked mole rat just as in any other animal, its damage does not accumulate with age. Oxidative stress occurs during normal cell metabolism when oxygen "free radicals" with one or more unpaired electrons wreak havoc on large cellular molecules, leaving microscopic debris in their wake that clogs up the gears of healthy cell function. Somehow, naked mole rats have an enhanced ability to clear out the damaged cells and molecules before they can set off the usual chain reaction of cell dysfunction and death, according to a 2013 paper in which Buffenstein is the lead author.
Oxidative stress is not the only factor known to be problematic in aging. Slowly accumulating damage to DNA typically leads to protein malfunction and improper folding. In humans and most other animals, these protein fragments can accumulate in cells and gum up the works. Only not so much in naked mole rats, which are able to maintain normal protein folding throughout their long life. After years of discoveries like these, Buffenstein has gradually reframed her focus from "what goes wrong to produce aging?" to "what goes right in the naked mole rat to help it defy the normal wear and tear of life?" Buffenstein's research suggests that the tiny mammals have a unique ability to somehow clear out damaged protein fragments and other toxic debris before they can cause disease and aging.
How She Got Here
Buffenstein ascribes her initial acquaintance with the naked mole rat to serendipity. Back in 1979, her postgraduate mentor Jenny Jarvis at the University of Cape Town in South Africa kept a small colony of rats in her office while studying the mechanisms that lead to the animals' unusual adaptive capabilities. It was Buffenstein's job to take care of them. Working with Jarvis, Buffenstein focused on understanding their unique adaptations to the extreme conditions of their natural habitat.
They studied the unusual behaviors regulating the rat colonies. For instance, they observed that designated "workers" dig the entire colony's underground tunnels and a single reproducing female breeds with only a small number of males. Buffenstein also examined how these animals are able to survive without the "sunshine hormone" — vitamin D — and their unusual modes of regulating their internal temperatures and converting food into energy. Though classified as mammals, the rodents simply don't conform to the mammalian handbook, having found ingenuous ways to alter their bodies and behavior that is fine-tuned to the scorching heat and aridity of their environment.
To escape the heat, they simply burrow underground and live in elaborate tunnels. To cope with the low-oxygen conditions underground, they slowed their metabolism and learned to live for extended periods of time in such hypoxic conditions that an ordinary animal would quickly suffocate. But it was slowly dawning on Buffenstein that the small creatures were exceptional in additional ways.
When Buffenstein got her first academic position at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, Jarvis said she could take some of the naked mole rats with her. When she did, Buffenstein noticed that the animals were living far longer than similarly sized rodents. "At that stage, they were about ten years old. Little did I know how long they would eventually show us they could live," she says.
In 1997, after accepting a position at the City College of New York, Buffenstein moved to the U.S. and took her rat colony with her. There she was able to pursue an evolving narrative about the humble naked mole rat that continued to defy expectations. As the years passed, it was becoming more and more evident that her observations could have major implications for aging research. Eventually, she took a position at the Barshop Institute for Aging and Longevity Studies in San Antonio, Texas.
One early observation of Buffenstein's suggested that the species most often used in aging research—mice, roundworms, fruit flies and yeast—have short lifespans and poor defenses against aging. These animals provide important insights into how aging works, and have revealed possible targets for intervention. But they don't show what goes right in apparently non-aging animals like the naked mole rat.
Buffenstein's years of studying the rats has laid the foundation for a whole new perspective in aging research.
"My hypothesis," she says, "is that naked mole rats are very good at removing damaged macromolecules and cells, thereby maintaining homeostasis and cell and tissue function. All the repair pathways examined by us and others in the field point to more efficient repair and more rapid responses to damaging agents." These include things like free radicals and radiation.
Some researchers today are building on Buffenstein's foundational discoveries to home in on possible anti-aging mechanisms that lead to the extraordinary resilience of naked mole rats. University of Cambridge researcher and co-founder of the institution's Naked Mole-Rat Initiative, Ewan St. John Smith, is studying the animal's resistance to cancer.
In a 2020 paper published in Nature, Smith and his colleagues established that naked mole rats harbor cancer-causing genes, and these genes occasionally create cancer cells. But something in the rats shuts the multiplication process down before the cells can grow out of control and form tumors. Now, scientists want to know what mechanisms, exactly, are at play in preventing the cells from invading healthy tissues. Smith has hypothesized that the answer is somehow embedded in interactions in the cells' microenvironment.
He also thinks the animal's immune system could just be very effective at seeking out and destroying cancer cells. Several current cancer therapies work by boosting the body's immune system so it can attack and eliminate the toxic cells. It's possible that the naked mole rat's immune system naturally goes into hyper-drive when cancer cells appear, enabling it to nip the disease in the bud before tumors can form. A pharmacologist by training, Smith thinks that if there is some chemical mediator in the naked mole rat that supercharges its immune cells, perhaps that mediator can be synthesized in a drug to treat humans for cancer.
The naked mole rat's extreme tolerance to hypoxia could also play a role. "Interestingly," he says, "when cells become cancerous, they also become hypoxic, and naked mole rats are known to be very resistant to hypoxia.
He notes that a form of low-level hypoxia is also present in the bodies and brains of both aged mice and older humans. It's commonly seen in the brains of humans with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of age-related dementia. This suggests that hypoxia in humans — and in other mammals — may have a role to play in Alzheimer's and the aging process itself. Resistance to hypoxia could be why the naked mole rat, in Smith's words, "chugs along quite happily" in conditions that in humans are associated with disease and decline.
Smith cheerfully acknowledges his debt to Buffenstein for laying so much of the groundwork in a field rife with possible implications for anti-aging. "Shelley is amazing," he says. "Naked mole rats have a queen and I always refer to her as the queen of the naked mole rat world." In fact, Buffenstein gave Smith his first colony of rats, which he's since grown to about 150. "Some of them will still be around when I retire," he jokes.
Vera Gorbunova, a professor of biology and oncology at the University of Rochester who studies both longevity and cancer in naked mole rats, credits Buffenstein with getting others to study the animals for anti-aging purposes. Gorbunova believes that "cancer and aging go hand-in-hand" and that longer-lived animals have better, more accurate DNA repair.
Gorbunova is especially interested in the naked mole rat's ability to secrete a superabundance of a "super-sugar" molecule called hyaluronan, a ubiquitous additive to skin creams for its moisturizing effect. Gorbunova and others have observed that the presence of high concentrations of hyaluronan in the naked mole rat's extracellular matrix — the chemical-rich solution between cells — prevents the overcrowding of cells. This, perhaps, could be the key to the animal's ability to stop tumors from forming.
Hyaluronan is also present in the extracellular matrix of humans, but the naked mole rat molecule is more than five times larger than the versions found in humans or mice, and is thought to play a significant part in the animal's DNA repair. But just rubbing a cream containing hyaluronan over your skin won't stop cancer or aging. High concentrations of the substance in the extracellular matrix throughout your body would likely be needed.
Gorbunova notes that the naked mole rat offers a multitude of possibilities that could eventually lead to drugs to slow human aging. "I'm optimistic that there are many different strategies, because the naked mole rat likely has many processes going on that fight aging," she says. "I think that in a relatively short time, there will be bonafide treatments to test in animals. One thing we've learned from these animals is that they stay healthy until the very end."
So if naked mole rats don't become frail with age or develop age-related diseases, what does kill them? The answer, unfortunately, is usually other naked mole rats. Buffenstein has long noted that even though they live in highly cooperative colonies, they can be quite cantankerous when there's a disruption in the hierarchy, a sentiment echoed by Gorbunova. "Sometimes there are periods of peace and quiet, but if something happens to the queen, all hell breaks loose," she says. "If the queen is strong, everybody knows their place," but if the queen dies, the new queen is inevitably decided by violent competition.
To the casual observer, a strange, wrinkly rodent like the naked mole rat might seem to have little to teach us about ourselves, but Buffenstein is confident that her discoveries could have major implications for human longevity research. Today, at Calico's labs in San Francisco, she's focused entirely on the determining how anti-aging defense mechanisms in the rats could lead to similar defenses being stimulated or introduced in humans.
"The million-dollar question is, what are the mechanisms protecting against aging, and can these be translated into therapies to delay or abrogate human aging, too?"
Buffenstein fired up a new generation of scientists with multiple discoveries, especially the fundamental one that naked mole rats are subject to the same wear and tear over time as the rest of us, but somehow manage to reverse it. These days, the trailblazer is at work on untangling the molecular mechanisms involved in the animal's resistance to cardiac aging. On top of everything else, the small creature has a unique ability to fight off the scourge of heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the industrialized world.
After all, the point is not to extend old age, but to slow down aging itself so that frailty and disability are compressed into a brief period after a long-extended period of vitality. By switching the focus from what goes wrong to mechanisms that defend against aging in the first place, the discoveries of Buffenstein and a new generation of researchers who are building on her groundbreaking research promise to be a driving force in the quest to extend not only life, but healthy, vigorous life in humans.
When NASA's Perseverance rover landed successfully on Mars on February 18, 2021, calling it "one giant leap for mankind" – as Neil Armstrong said when he set foot on the moon in 1969 – would have been inaccurate. This year actually marked the fifth time the U.S. space agency has put a remote-controlled robotic exploration vehicle on the Red Planet. And it was a female engineer named Donna Shirley who broke new ground for women in science as the manager of both the Mars Exploration Program and the 30-person team that built Sojourner, the first rover to land on Mars on July 4, 1997.
For Shirley, the Mars Pathfinder mission was the climax of her 32-year career at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. The Oklahoma-born scientist, who earned her Master's degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Southern California, saw her profile skyrocket with media appearances from CNN to the New York Times, and her autobiography Managing Martians came out in 1998. Now 79 and living in a Tulsa retirement community, she still embraces her status as a female pioneer.
"Periodically, I'll hear somebody say they got into the space program because of me, and that makes me feel really good," Shirley told Leaps.org. "I look at the mission control area, and there are a lot of women in there. I'm quite pleased I was able to break the glass ceiling."
Her $25-million, 25-pound microrover – powered by solar energy and designed to get rock samples and test soil chemistry for evidence of life – was named after Sojourner Truth, a 19th-century Black abolitionist and women's rights activist. Unlike Mars Pathfinder, Shirley didn't have to travel more than 131 million miles to reach her goal, but her path to scientific fame as a woman sometimes resembled an asteroid field.
As a high-IQ tomboy growing up in Wynnewood, Oklahoma (pop. 2,300), Shirley yearned to escape. She decided to become an engineer at age 10 and took flying lessons at 15. Her extraterrestrial aspirations were fueled by Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles and Arthur C. Clarke's The Sands of Mars. Yet when she entered the University of Oklahoma (OU) in 1958, her freshman academic advisor initially told her: "Girls can't be engineers." She ignored him.
Years later, Shirley would combat such archaic thinking, succeeding at JPL with her creative, collaborative management style. "If you look at the literature, you'll find that teams that are either led by or heavily involved with women do better than strictly male teams," she noted.
However, her career trajectory stalled at OU. Burned out by her course load and distracted by a broken engagement to marry a fellow student, she switched her major to professional writing. After graduation, she applied her aeronautical background as a McDonnell Aircraft technical writer, but her boss, she says, harassed her and she faced gender-based hostility from male co-workers.
Returning to OU, Shirley finished off her engineering degree and became a JPL aerodynamist in 1966 after answering an ad in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. At first, she was the only female engineer among the research center's 2,000-odd engineers. She wore many hats, from designing planetary atmospheric entry vehicles to picking the launch date of November 4, 1973 for Mariner 10's mission to Venus and Mercury.
By the mid-1980's, she was managing teams that focused on robotics and Mars, delivering creative solutions when NASA budget cuts loomed. In 1989, the same year the Sojourner microrover concept was born, President George H.W. Bush announced his Space Exploration Initiative, including plans for a human mission to Mars by 2019.
That target, of course, wasn't attained, despite huge advances in technology and our understanding of the Martian environment. Today, Shirley believes humans could land on Mars by 2030. She became the founding director of the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle in 2004 after leaving NASA, and to this day, she enjoys checking out pop culture portrayals of Mars landings – even if they're not always accurate.
After the novel The Martian was published in 2011, which later was adapted into the hit film starring Matt Damon, Shirley phoned author Andy Weir: "You've got a major mistake in here. It says there's a storm that tries to blow the rocket over. But actually, the Mars atmosphere is so thin, it would never blow a rocket over!"
Fearlessly speaking her mind and seeking the stars helped Donna Shirley make history. However, a 2019 Washington Post story noted: "Women make up only about a third of NASA's workforce. They comprise just 28 percent of senior executive leadership positions and are only 16 percent of senior scientific employees." Whether it's traveling to Mars or trending toward gender equality, we've still got a long way to go.