|Institutions||University of California, San Francisco (UCSF)|
|Alma mater||Massachusetts Institute of Technology|
|Doctoral advisor||Graham Walker|
|Notable students||Andrew Dillin|
|Known for||Aging in C. elegans|
|Notable awards||National Academy of Sciences
Dan David Prize
Cynthia Jane Kenyon (born c. 1955) is an American molecular biologist and biogerontologist known for her genetic dissection of aging in a widely used model organism, the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans.
Cynthia Kenyon graduated valedictorian in chemistry and biochemistry from the University of Georgia in 1976. She received her PhD in 1981 from MIT where, in Graham Walker's laboratory, she was the first to look for genes on the basis of their activity profiles, discovering that DNA-damaging agents activate a battery of DNA repair genes in E. coli. She then did postdoctoral studies with Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, studying the development of C. elegans.
Since 1986 she has been at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), where she was the Herbert Boyer Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics and is now an American Cancer Society Professor.
In April 2014, Kenyon was named Vice President of Aging Research at Calico, a new company focused on health and well-being. Prior to that, she served as a part-time advisor beginning in November 2013. Kenyon will remain affiliated with UCSF as an emeritus professor.
Her early work led to the discovery that Hox genes, which were known to pattern the body segments of the fruit fly Drosophila, also pattern the body of C. elegans. These findings demonstrated that Hox genes were not simply involved in segmentation, as thought, but instead were part of a much more ancient and fundamental metazoan patterning system.
Michael Klass discovered that lifespan of C. elegans could be altered by mutations, but Klass believed that the effect was due to reduced food consumption (calorie restriction). Thomas Johnson later showed that the 65% life extension effect was due to the mutation itself rather than due to calorie restriction. In 1993, Dr. Kenyon's discovery that a single-gene mutation (Daf-2) could double the lifespan of C. elegans and that this could be reversed by a second mutation in daf-16m, sparked an intensive study of the molecular biology of aging. Dr. Kenyon's findings have led to the discovery that an evolutionarily-conserved hormone signaling system influences aging in other organisms, perhaps also including mammals.
Kenyon has received many honors, including the King Faisal Prize for Medicine, the American Association of Medical Colleges Award for Distinguished Research, the Ilse & Helmut Wachter Award for Exceptional Scientific Achievement, and La Fondation IPSEN Prize, for her findings. She is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She is now the director of the Hillblom Center for the Biology of Aging at UCSF. She is also one of featured biologists in the 1995 science documentary Death by Design / The Life and Times of Life and Times.
Kenyon's research prompted her to make personal dietary changes. She stopped eating high glycemic index carbohydrates when she discovered that putting sugar on the worms' food shortened their lifespans.
No desserts. No sweets. No potatoes. No rice. No bread. No pasta. When I say ‘no,’ I mean ‘no, or not much,’ she notes. Instead, eat green vegetables. Eat the fruits that aren't the sweet fruits, like melon. Bananas? Bananas are a little sweet. Meat? Meat, yes, of course. Avocados. All vegetables. Nuts. Fish. Chicken. That's what I eat. Cheese. Eggs. And one glass of red wine a day.
But the diet is unproven, she cautions, and she's not recommending it for all. Nevertheless, she's pleased with its performance for her. 'I have a fabulous blood profile. My triglyceride level is only 30, and anything below 200 is good.'
You have to eat something, and you just have to make your best judgment. And that's my best judgment. Plus, I feel better. Plus, I'm thin—I weigh what I weighed when I was in college. I feel great —you feel like you're a kid again. It's amazing.
Kenyon's lab is focusing on extending life by inducing gene mutations or killing part of a specific worm cell. Kenyon showed that although the daf-16 gene is required for life extension in C. elegans, the life extension effect can be uncoupled from dauer growth arrest.
The company she founded, Elixir Pharmaceuticals, is trying to make a pill that would slow down the process that makes people age. It would mimic gene manipulation.
Notes and references
- Klass MR (1983). "A method for the isolation of longevity mutants in the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans and initial results". MECHANISMS OF AGEING AND DEVELOPMENT 22 (3-4): 279–286. PMID 6632998.
- Friedman DB, Johnson TE (1988). "A mutation in the age-1 gene in Caenorhabditis elegans lengthens life and reduces hermaphrodite fertility" (PDF). Genetics (journal) 118 (1): 75–86. PMC 1203268. PMID 8608934.
- Kenyon C, Chang J, Gensch E, Rudner A, Tabtiang R (1993). "A C. elegans mutant that lives twice as long as wild type". Nature (journal) 366 (6454): 461–464. doi:10.1038/366461a0. PMID 8247153.
- Kingsland, J.: "I Want to Live Forever", New Scientist, Issue 2417, October 18, 2003.
- Platoni, K: "Live, Fast, Die Old", East Bay Express, January 18, 2006.
- O'Neill B: "In Methuselah's Mould", PLoS Biology Vol. 2, No. 1, e12 doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0020012
- NIH Profile: Cynthia Kenyon, Ph.D.
- Basic Research: Cynthia Kenyon by Steven Kotler in Discover, vol. 25, no. 11, 2004
- Kenyon Lab at UCSF
- Cynthia Kenyon's seminar: Genes that Control Aging
- Elixir Pharmaceuticals
- Kenyon Lab website
- In Methuselah's Mould, an open-access interview discussing Kenyon's research and her personal low carb diet.