A casual survey of my acquaintances tells me that I am not alone. Each of us has a daily routine designed to mitigate a fact of life:  aging skin. My own process is relatively simple, involving a few creams, exfoliants and toners, the cost of which I keep to myself. Others have more involved rituals that include masks, night serums and the like. Our objective? To slow down that which nature intended — wrinkles, sagging skin, and the many other signs that indicate this human body has been around for a few decades.

Of course, the effects of age are not just skin deep. As we grow older the entire system begins to weaken, throwing out a few nuts and bolts as the years click by. The knees hurt; eyesight changes; reflexes slow and each winter seems even colder. The body begins to reflect years of sun, ambient radiation, the weird chemicals with which the world is imbued and, of course, the genetic quilt we were given at birth. 

Those changes occur within our cells. The little strands of deoxyribonucleic acid, commonly called DNA, that created us get hammered each day we live. Fortunately, cells have mechanisms to repair normal damage to DNA and those mechanisms keep working for a very long time.  However, given enough years, some damage isn’t repaired and will stay put in the DNA. New generations of cells carry that damaged DNA within them. Scientists think this may be an important component of aging. We just don’t regenerate and repair most of our cells as well as we did when we were younger, despite what the advertising teams at Estee Lauder and the like would have you believe. 

Aging is not a problem for the sea urchin. Researchers at the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory (MDIBL) in Bar Harbor have discovered that sea urchins, found on both the East and West coasts, continue to regenerate cells throughout their lives. Several species of sea urchin live to be 50 to 100 years old without signs of poor health. They regrow damaged tissue whether young or old. They even reproduce as if they were still young.

Scientists are particularly interested in sea urchins because they share so many genes with humans. Thanks to genomic sequencing, researchers know that 70% of a sea urchin’s genes have a counterpart in humans. Furthermore, sea urchins have a very sophisticated immune system, which may explain why they live to be so old. Human beings have innate and acquired immune systems. The most vigorous is the acquired immune system, which over time learns to combat viruses and bacteria after being introduced to them. A sea urchin comes hardwired to attack and defeat viruses and bacteria, no introduction necessary. It has 10 to 20 times the number of genes for its immune system than do humans. 

MDIBL associate professor James Coffman and his colleagues studied sea urchins with long, intermediate and short life spans: the red sea urchin, Mesocentrotus franciscanus, which can live more than 100 years; the purple sea urchin, Strongylocentrotus purpuratus, which generally lives more than 50 years; and the variegated sea urchin, Lytechinus variegatus, with a life expectancy of four years.

They thought that in the species with a short life expectancy they would find signs of aging, such as the inability to regrow damaged tissues, as the animals became old. Nope. These indomitable little things continued to replace damaged spines and feet throughout their life span. Coffman said in a recent press release, “What we found is that aging is not inevitable: sea urchins don’t appear to age, even when they are short-lived.”

What the scientists did not explore is why that should be so. Is there a single gene kicking around someplace in the sea urchin’s genetic code that gives them this ability? Is it related to that remarkable immune system? Could it be the product of life under water and a strictly vegetarian diet? There’s no doubt the question will draw more attention and more funding as Americans increasingly contemplate the uncomfortable facts of aging. In this highly monetized world, I predict major skin care companies will jump quickly on the sea urchin bandwagon, loudly trumpeting the use of sea urchin genes in their most exclusive anti-aging products. I wonder what their slogan will be?