As old-timers go, the Methuselah tree in California’s White Mountains takes some beating. According to research released last week, this ancient bristlecone pine will be 4,851 years old this year. Not a bad performance when it comes to avoiding the Grim Reaper.
Nor is the Methuselah on its own in making recent headlines about longevity. Researchers announced last week they had found beds of kelp off Shetland, and in Irish and French Atlantic waters, that had survived for 16,000 years. A day later, an international group of scientists announced that they had revived microbes which had lain dormant in seabed mud for 100 million years.
The physiological limits of life on Earth can be pushed to fairly spectacular limits, it would seem – although it should be stressed that each of these feats reveal different aspects of the ageing process.
The Methuselah tree’s longevity reveals the remarkable endurance of a single entity. The kelp story reflects the great age of a population, but not of its individual plants, while the revival of ancient seabed microbes shows how suspended animation can be extraordinarily long-lasting. Nevertheless, there is a common theme to these recently announced research results, as an expert on ageing, Prof Tom Kirkwood of Newcastle University, points out: “These stories all speak to the endurance of life and at a time when we have become fixated with ideas about our own mortality.”