Rotifers are unusual in that they often reproduce by parthenogenesis (some species, indeed, can reproduce only in this way). A parthenogenetic population is, by definition, all female and the result, give or take the odd mutation, is that a rotifer’s daughters are genetically identical to her. That makes rotifers convenient subjects for studies of the controversial idea that characteristics acquired during an individual’s life can be passed down the generations in ways that are independent of mutations in the DNA.So, if inherited epigenetic changes are causing daughter rotifers to produce more catalase, it raises the question of whether a similar thing happens in other species and, if so, whether it might be induced artificially so that people won't have to resort to caloric restriction.
Dr Watabe and his colleagues first looked at whether caloric restriction does, indeed, work its magic on rotifers. It does. Without it, as they report in Functional Ecology, their animals lived for an average of 8.8 days. With it they lived for 13.5 days. The intriguing result came when they did the same thing with the rotifers’ offspring. The daughters of those rotifers which had been fed as much as they could eat lived for 9.5 days if treated likewise (not significantly different from their mothers) and 14.4 if put on short commons. Those born of calorie-restricted mothers lived for 12.7 and 16.8 days respectively. Something, then, is being passed on that is having an effect down the generations.
That something seems to be related to an enzyme called catalase. This enzyme degrades hydrogen peroxide, a highly reactive chemical that creates cellular damage of the sort associated with ageing. Dr Watabe found that the offspring of calorie-restricted mothers have more catalase than those of mothers who were fed without restriction.
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