Scientists Recreate a Really Sad Greek Myth With Worms

Illustration for article titled Scientists Recreate a Really Sad Greek Myth With Worms

This worm is in a Greek myth, and not the fun Greek myth where people get knocked up by rain. It's in a depressing, ironic Greek myth that instructs people not to reach for the power of the gods.

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Ever heard of Tithonus? His story is one of the less popular Greek myths, and once you've heard it, you'll realize why it was so unpopular. Tithonus was a prince of Troy. He slept with his window open, so the earliest rays of light woke him from sleep. Aurora, the goddess of the dawn, looked in on him every morning, and was so taken with his beauty and his voice that she fell in love. She took him to Zeus, the king of the gods, and begged tearfully for Tithonus to join the ranks of the immortals. Zeus granted her request. Young love triumphed.

Then the irony set in. What should have been a source of joy for them both turned into a perpetual agony. Tithonus was given eternal life, but not eternal youth. He aged and aged, until he became wizened and frail, hoping every moment for death. No one could commute Zeus's sentence, but, in some legends, Tithonus got turned into a cicada, which still sings with his voice. (In some versions of the legend, Tithonus turns into a cicada naturally, and the rasp of the cicadas is him still begging for death.)

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Illustration for article titled Scientists Recreate a Really Sad Greek Myth With Worms

What fun. And it looks like we're now sufficiently advanced that we're granting that fate to roundworms. Specimens of Caenorhabditis elegans were genetically altered, made into mutants with known longevity genes. These specimens were given long lives in a laboratory, next to worms that did not have the same genes to extend their lives. Scientists studied both types of worms as they lived, and found that the ones with the favored genes lived longer.

They did not live better. As they aged, the C elegans with longevity genes were more fragile in the face of heat and oxidative stress, and moved around far less than the worms with regular genes. They got long life, but most of it was lived without strength. Not only did they spend a larger portion of their life old and frail - which is to be expected if they lived longer - they had less overall healthy days than the worms without the longevity genes.

This isn't going to mark the end of the quest for longevity, nor should it. Still, it provides us with something to think about. Scientists want to emphasize this difference between longevity and health. Perhaps we should not be like Aurora, and think of a long lifespan. Instead, we should focus on "healthpan" - the number of years that are active, healthy, and resilient.

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Image: National Human Genome Research Institute

[Via Uncoupling Lifespan and Healthspan.]

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DISCUSSION

brendandriscoll
Started as a Cleric and Ended up an Innkeeper

Zeus, king of the gods, victor over the titans, father to god knows how many illegitimate children, and slave to the Furies. No matter what Zeus does to alleviate (or amplify) the limitations of mortality, he was never able to change fate.

To the ancient Greeks (using 5th and 4th century Greek literature as reference), fortune and luck were two sides of the same coin in regards to free will. If you happened to come across good fortune, something good happened without any explanation, there was a subtle fear to coincide with it. Good fortune was seen as a gift of the gods, a gods magical alteration of natural order. As the Greeks learned from all these legends, things will return to the natural order in due time. So don't expect that surprisingly bountiful harvest to repeat itself year after year.

Your daily actions were of your own control, yet you were completely unable to change the grand scheme of things. For gods and mortals alike, they were all at the will of (the Furies/the Fates/the Kindly Ones), the pluralistic personification of the universe's unwritten natural laws.

Consider the trial in the Eumenides in the Oresteia. Apollo and Orestes are quite literally fighting against the Furies on charge of matricide, an offense that not only broke the laws of the local kingdom, but a moral/natural law.

(To extend on that last note, the Greeks believed fratricide was something that was introduced during the Iron Age according to Hesiod's Work's and Days. Fratricide and matricide were seen as being such heinous crimes that it's mere existence, alongside with the dissolution of the people's adherence to Xenia, created a morally polluted world that would allow evil to triumph over good.)