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Immortality: Science fiction or science fact?

No matter how healthy your diets of kale and vegan protein powder are, or how much you exercise, the end is always inevitable. Nobody lives forever... or so the saying would have you believe. Researchers at the University of California, Berkley, have recently taken high-quality images of the illusive telomerase, the protective 'caps' you find on the end of eukaryotic chromosomes. Have I lost you yet? Well, take my hand, we'll skip through this hedge maze of confusing terminology together and discover what makes this so astounding.

To start with, chromosomes are coils made up of DNA that are wrapped around proteins called histones. In English, they’re like a set of instructions your body’s given to develop in all sorts of ways. How long should your fingers be? What colour’s your hair? How big are your feet? Whatever way you turn out at birth, chromosomes and the DNA inside are responsible. The word ‘eukaryotic’ normally just means the organism has a nucleus, which is like the brain of a cell. In the case of chromosomes, which are already within the nucleus of a cell to begin with, it refers to the looped structure, as it’s tightly packed in and coiled.

From this, you can probably gather that chromosomes are astoundingly important, shaping all aspects of our bodies before we’re even born. This should get your imagination going. After all, what if you could alter your chromosomes? What if you were able to learn the language your DNA is programming in and enter your own commands? In 1883, Sir Francis Galton of Britain coined the term "eugenics" to mean “well-born” and ever since it has been used to discuss the prospect of engineering out the flaws persistent in humanity. Think inherited physical deformities, mental problems... and ageing.

The problem thus far has been the miniscule scale of the process. DNA is contained within chromosomes and 46 chromosomes on average are contained within each of the 37.2 trillion cells in each of our bodies, all of which vary in their miniscule size measured in micrometres (one millionth of a metre). That’s a lot of cells to keep track of. Finding out what they do and just observing them has proven challenging. This is where the recent Berkley finding comes in.

Thanks to telomeres, your chromosomes don’t bash into each other and fuse, which would be disastrous. However, over time they continually become shorter and thus the amount of protection they afford becomes lessened. Fortunately, Carol W. Greider made an incredible, Nobel Prize-winning discovery in 1984: the telomerase. This enzyme can be used to actually extend telomeres, allowing them to live well beyond their natural lifespan. The problem is this ‘immortality function’ simply isn’t switched on in most adults. If we could just see what telomerase looked like, we’d be several steps closer to extending telomeres and thus our lifespans indefinitely. Now that we have tangible data regarding the extension of telomeres through these state-of-the-art photographs, we could potentially be on the brink of a new age for our species, one in which cancer is a thing of the past and people live forever.

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