Continuing our series of articles on Great British bioscience pioneers, Professor Dame Linda Partridge FRS gives us a glimpse at her career at the forefront of research on the biology of ageing. She is the Director of the Institute of Healthy Ageing at University College London, as well as founding director of the Max Planck Institute for Biology of Ageing in Cologne.
How did your bioscience career first begin?
I did my DPhil work at Oxford under the guidance of Mike Cullen, working on the development of habitat preference and feeding skills in birds. Subsequently, I held a NERC post-doctoral fellowship at the University of York and then obtained a faculty position at the University of Edinburgh where I became progressively more interested in the genetics of mating systems and life histories. This led to my current interest in the biology of ageing.
What are you working on now?
Mutations in single genes, particularly in signalling systems that detect nutrition and various stresses, can extend healthy lifespan in laboratory animals, and these pathways can also be manipulated pharmacologically. Reduced food intake – dietary restriction – has similar effects, mediated at least in part by reduced activity of these nutrient-sensing pathways. We are investigating the roles of different tissues in improving health during ageing, and the cellular processes that contribute. For instance, molecular chaperones, proteasomal activity, autophagy, cellular detoxification systems, stress responses and reduced translation of proteins all seem to play a role. The main challenges are to understand when, how and how much to manipulate the signalling networks or their effector mechanisms to maximise improvements in health for minimal side-effects.
What advances have you seen in your chosen field in the last 20 years?
The major breakthroughs have been the discoveries that the ageing process is highly malleable and that its mechanisms are conserved over large evolutionary distances. This means that laboratory animals can be used to understand at least some mechanisms of ageing that are relevant to humans, and it also opens up the prospects of a broad-spectrum, preventative medicine for the diseases of ageing.
What are the five key bioscience milestones that you've been part of and when did these occur?
- 1981 The discovery that males, as well as females, experience a cost of reproduction that causes a trade-off between reproductive rate and survival
- 1995 We found that molecules in the seminal fluid of the male fruit fly Drosophila caused the death of females that re-mated frequently
- 2001 The discovery that the increased lifespan resulting from reduced activity of the insulin/IGF signalling pathway, initially discovered in nematode worms, was evolutionarily conserved in Drosophila, and subsequently also turned out to be conserved in mice
- 2003 We found that Drosophila have no memory of their dietary history, with their mortality rate depending entirely upon what they are currently eating, not what they have eaten in the past
- 2009 The demonstration that the balance of essential amino acids in the diet explains the responses to dietary restriction
How has BBSRC supported you throughout your career?
I have been very generously supported by research grants and studentships from BBSRC, and I was also lucky enough to hold a BBSRC Professorial Fellowship for five years. I also learned a lot about science by serving on many BBSRC committees.