Genomics prize pushes hunt for longevity secrets in seniors' DNA

In this Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011 photo, Marie Eberhardt helps her 107-year-old husband, George Eberhardt, of Chester, NJ. after they got their annual flu shot in Mendham, N.J.
AP Photo/Mel Evans
In this Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011 photo, Marie Eberhardt helps her 107-year-old husband, George Eberhardt, of Chester, NJ. after they got their annual flu shots in Mendham, N.J.
AP Photo

(CBS/AP) George Eberhardt turned 107 last month, and scientists want to know how he and other super-old folks made it that far. So he's going to hand over some of his DNA.

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Eberhardt is one of 100 centenarians taking part in a project announced Wednesday that in which some of the oldest citizens will be examined with one of the newest scientific tools: whole-genome sequencing, the deciphering of a person's complete set of DNA.

In addition to helping explain why some people live so long, scientists say DNA from very old people could lead to medicines to help the rest of us stay disease-free longer.

By the time you reach, say, 105, "it's very hard to get there without some genetic advantages," said Boston University genetics expert Dr. Thomas Perls.

Perls is helping identify centenarians for the Archon Genomics X Prize competition. The X Prize Foundation, best known for its involvement with spaceflight ventures, is offering $10 million to researchers who decipher the complete DNA code from 100 centenarians.

Genome pioneer J. Craig Venter said the project is just a first step in revealing the genetic secrets of longevity.

"We need 10,000 genomes, not 100, to start to understand the link between genetics, disease and wellness," said Venter, who is co-chairing the X Prize contest.

Eberhardt, of Chester, N.J., played and taught tennis until he was 94. He said he's participating in the X Prize project because he's interested in science. It's not clear his genes will reveal much. No one else in his family reached 100, and he thinks only a couple reached 90, he said.

What explains his longevity? He credits 70 years of marriage and his wife, Marie. In turn, she cites his "intense interest in so many things" over a lifetime, from building radios as a child to pursuing a career in electronics research.

But scientists say there's more to it.

Dr. Richard Cawthon of the University of Utah, who is seeking longevity genes by other means, said it might turn up genetic features that protect against multiple diseases or that slow the process of aging in general.

"Good" DNA can even overcome less-than-ideal lifestyles, said Dr. Nir Barzilai of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. His own study of centenarians showed that "as a group, they haven't done the right things."

Many in the group he studied were obese. Many smoked, and few exercised or ate a vegetarian diet. His oldest participant, who died this month just short of her 110th birthday, smoked for 95 years.

"She had genes that protected her against the environment," Barzilai said. One of her sisters died at 102, and one of her brothers manages a hedge fund - at the age of 105.