On this glorious spring day in Cambridge, England, the heraldic flags are flying from the stone towers, and I feel like I could be in the 17th century—or, as I pop into the Eagle Pub to meet University of Cambridge longevity theorist Aubrey de Grey, the 1950s. It was in this pub, after all, that James Watson and Francis Crick met regularly for lunch while they were divining the structure of DNA and where, in February 1953, Crick made his breathless announcement that they had succeeded.
Aubrey de Grey has no victory pronouncements to make as of yet, but he is vigorously pursuing an even more challenging project. Using the legacy that Watson and Crick bequeathed us, he proposes to tinker with the essential biochemical pathways that drive the aging process. De Grey contends that we know enough to intelligently map out a program of anti-aging intervention research such that sometime in the next 100 years, and quite possibly much sooner, the average human life span may be 5,000 years, a figure brought short of outright immortality by the small number of people who will die from non-age-related diseases and everybody else who, given the boggling amount of time available to them on the planet, will eventually do something unlucky or stupid like walk in front of a moving rocket car. In de Grey time, the 400-year span between Shakespeare’s England and today would be but the blink of an eye.
I slide in behind a venerable wooden table at the Eagle and take my first measure of the man. De Grey, 41, is lanky
and favors the classic combination of T-shirt, old jeans and sneakers. He has a Rasputin-length beard that he strokes incessantly. He’s a confirmed drinker of fine English ales, and when he makes a strong point, which is often, he raps his pint glass on the table like a judge bringing his court to order. The pronouncements are delivered in a moderately posh English drawl, with a touch of a lisp. “Cambridge is so full of eccentrics,” he says, “nothing surprises anybody over here. And there are plenty of people with beards my size. But some in the university do find it hard to get used to the idea that someone would actually be doing seriously significant academic work in his spare time.” De Grey, you see, is not, as he is sometimes mistaken to be, a professor of genetics at Cambridge but a half-time research associate with a day job managing a genetics database.
The history of radical solutions to the problem of human aging is colorful yet rather lacking in distinction. Until the dawn of modern medicine, the standard prescription was that old men should inhale the sweet breath of virgin girls to restore “innate moisture.” At the end of the 19th century, the physician Charles E. Brown-Squard recommended an injection of the macerated sex glands of monkeys or dogs to keep the sands of time at bay. In the go-go 1990s, a Virginia medical school professor, William Regelson, sold a ton of books touting the “melatonin miracle” as an aging cure-all and hormonal good-for-what-ails-you.
To distinguish themselves from the charlatans and hype purveyors, mainstream academics tend to be circumspect about the work they do in the biology of aging. But in the past 15 years, the field has been revved by startling breakthroughs. The human genome, our entire complement of DNA, has been decoded, opening the possibility of tinkering with our genetic makeup. And scientists are learning to manipulate embryonic stem cells to make them grow into any kind of tissue. The long-term implications of these discoveries have barely been teased out by biologists, who tend to be cautious by nature and training. So the speculative arena has been left largely to a theoretician, de Grey, who wouldn’t know a DNA analyzer from a protein sequencer but who is promoting the unthinkable: that the human race is on the verge of figuring out how to live darn near forever.
The key to this rosy scenario is a sort of biological Ponzi scheme that de Grey has dubbed “escape velocity.” The idea is simple. If scientists can find ways to intervene in the cellular processes that cause our bodies to age—managing to keep middle-aged people alive an additional 40 years, say—that extra 40 years will buy enough time for biogerontological engineers to solve other damage problems before they emerge. Think of the body as a leaky boat. You don’t have to keep it bone-dry to stay afloat; you just have to bail out the water at the same rate it’s coming in. Or, as de Grey says, “You don’t have to fix everything you’re ever going to get. You only have to fix things in time.”
De Grey’s scientific career, like everything else about him, smacks of oddness and self-invention. A Cambridge-educated computer scientist, he hasn’t taken a biology class since he was a 15-year-old schoolboy at Harrow. He is essentially self-taught, originally tutored by his wife, a former biology professor. He acquired his doctorate in biology by way of a hoary, little-used Cambridge shortcut: Without ever registering for graduate study, he submitted to the university a book he’d written on the mitochondria, the power plants of cells. His paying work involves managing a database on fruit flies, that staple of genetics research. But in recent years he has progressed from fruit flies to gadfly, becoming a jet-setting provocateur at a seemingly nonstop parade of gerontology conferences, as well as editing a somewhat fringy quarterly journal, Rejuvenation Research. Everything but the editing gig he does on his own time, pro bono, subsidized by expenses-paid invitations and a few patrons and true believers. Whatever else you can say about de Grey, he gives a good PowerPoint presentation. My favorite image from his bag of lectures is a chart that compares aging with fox hunting. Both are traditional, both are effective ways to keep a population down, and both are “fundamentally barbaric.”
De Grey’s delight in his own powers of persuasion is so guileless, it’s barely off-putting. “At one workshop/conference I organized last year,” he recalls, “I got an interminable standing ovation at the end.” But even if no one thinks as highly of de Grey as de Grey himself, it would be a mistake to write him off as just another charismatic kook. Two years ago, he helped create the Methuselah Foundation, which is now privately funded to the tune of half a million dollars. The foundation will award a succession of prizes to scientists as their lab mice break either of two records: for overall longevity, or for longevity after interventions beginning at middle age—lab-manipulated rodents being the essential stepping-stone to human life extension. One of the advisers to the Methuselah Foundation is no less a scientific entrepreneur than Peter Diamandis, whose X Prize helped wrap people’s minds around another initially implausible idea, commercial spaceflight. And sitting opposite de Grey and me at the Eagle is John Archer, a bona fide Cambridge professor and a leading authority on bioremediation, the use of microbes to clean up toxins in the environment. De Grey has sold Archer on the feasibility of identifying tenacious strains of bacteria in soil (“You can find bacteria that digest rubber,” de Grey says), genetically modifying them for compatibility with humans, then delivering the bacterial genes to human cells to aid with the never-ending job of breaking down the metabolic waste that leads to macular degeneration (the leading cause of blindness in the elderly), heart disease and Alzheimer’s. “It’s sort of human engineering,” Archer says. “It crosses boundaries, and that’s exciting.”
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.