Why flatworms may hold the secret to immortality

British scientists believe they may have identified how humans could potentially live forever - and it’s all about flatworms

Experts at Nottingham University have been examining how two species of flatworms are able to regenerate themselves again and again – raising hopes that scientists could find ways of alleviating the effects of ageing in human cells.

Flatworms, known as planarian worms, have long fascinated scientists with their apparently limitless ability to regenerate.

During the study 20,000 new and fully-formed flatworms were created from just one original worm by splitting it into tiny pieces.

The research team studied how the flatworms manage to replace aged or damaged tissues and cells in a bid to understand what drives their longevity.

Dr Aziz Aboobaker, who led the study, said: “We’ve been studying two types of planarian worms; those that reproduce sexually, like us, and those that reproduce asexually, simply dividing in two.

“Both appear to regenerate indefinitely by growing new muscles, skin, guts and even entire brains over and over again.

[Related link: The world’s longest living animals]

Key to a flatworm’s immortality lays in its telomeres – tiny sections of DNA that cap the ends of chromosomes, protecting them from damage and the loss of cell functions linked to ageing.

Each time a cell divides the protective telomere ‘cap’ gets shorter. When they get too short, the cell loses its ability to renew and divide. According to the study an immortal animal would expect cells to be able to maintain telomere length indefinitely so that they could continue to replicate.

Dr Aboobaker predicted that planarian worms actively maintain the ends of their chromosomes in adult stem cells, leading to theoretical immortality.

Speaking about the findings, Dr Aboobaker said: “Our data satisfy one of the predictions about what it would take for an animal to be potentially immortal.

“The next goals for us are to understand the mechanisms in more detail and to understand more about how you evolve an immortal animal.”