Age at menopause is a highly heritable trait. It also seems to be strongly linked with overall longevity.

Aided by recent advances in biotechnology, genetic analysis has become a powerful tool for understanding the pieces involved in any biological process. Using large samples of thousands of volunteers, researchers can rapidly find genetic patterns associated with a trait. This has already been done to find genes associated with age at menopause. These ‘hits’ need to be validated by further research, but each gene such a study identifies is one more previously unknown candidate that future researchers can study for medical intervention.

GCRLE Grantee projects

Dr Yousin Suh: Computational innovations mean scientists can now not only identify genetic differences between individuals that have code for proteins, but also differences in the vast stretches of DNA that are ‘noncoding.’ These regions often have complex regulatory functions; i.e. they affect when and how a gene is expressed rather than the gene itself, and their dysfunction is likely implicated in many diseases. Dr Suh’s lab identifies these genetic variants using data from large human populations, then introduces them into cell cultures in order to further understand their effects and study how to address them.

Dr Seungsoo Kim: A member of Dr Suh’s lab, Dr Kim brings deep computational expertise to the investigation of the genetics of reproductive longevity. Using massive datasets from the UK’s Biobank, Dr Kim is attempting to identify shared genetic features between menopause and common diseases of aging. Because overall and reproductive longevity appear to have a strong relationship, this approach will allow the identification of pathways that drive both, accelerating advancement by allowing insights gained in one field to inform the other.

Dr Ingrid Fetter-Pruneda: Dr Fetter Pruneda is identifying new genes associated with reproductive lifespan using a wholly different approach: using ants. Social insects like ants are unique in the animal kingdom in a couple ways that are of interest to reproductive longevity researchers. First, queens can live and remain fertile for decades, while their workers are sterile live weeks to months, even though they share the same genome. Some of these insects can even switch between these life trajectories when the queen is lost. What genes are turned on or off during this process that have such a profound impact on lifespan and fertility? With the assist-ants of these tiny creatures Dr Fetter-Pruneda’s lab could unlock clues to the most fundamental biological rules of reproductive longevity.