University of Alabama at Birmingham: $12.5 million grant aims to help researchers better understand aging differences between females and males

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A five-year, $12.5 million grant from the National Sciences Foundation will enable researchers from across the country — including the University of Alabama at Birmingham — to form the IISAGE Biology Integration Institute aimed at identifying mechanisms and evolution of sex differences between females and males in aging.

Led by principal investigator Nicole Riddle, Ph.D., associate professor of biology in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences, IISAGE Biology Integration Institute will determine how multiple biological processes contribute to differences in aging between females and males and uncover their evolutionary history. While little is currently known about how or why females and males in different animal species age and why one sex outlives the other, IISAGE hopes to understand more about the significant implications aging has on our world and populations, including our food and agricultural supply, biodiversity, climate change, and with human health.

“There are significant variations that we see in nature with regard to lifespan and sex differences in aging. It has long been a puzzle why in some animal species the females live longer and, in others, males outlive their counterparts,” Riddle said. “We don’t know why this is, and our findings will help us better understand these diverse patterns of aging, and how those could potentially be manipulated to our benefit. This understanding can impact our food supply, how we adapt to rising temperatures, or even how to defy the frailty that accompanies older age altogether.”

With a variety of differences between females and males — which cover many differences across species — IISAGE will develop predictive models through novel analysis tools and hundreds of matched datasets profiling gene expression to determine how genome architecture, organismal biology and phenotypic plasticity generate differences in aging. Ultimately, Riddle explains, it may help researchers identify ways to potentially control differences in aging between females and males.

As part of the NSF grant, IISAGE will bring together expertise from across biology to conduct research and observations in a variety of animal species. With significant in-laboratory components’ being vital to this research, the Institute is also vitally centered around community outreach and engagement of others; this includes bringing undergraduate students into labs during summers to conduct research, training graduate students with professional skills, hosting workshops and seminars — even displaying research in kiosks at science museums across the country.

Furthermore, a citizen science project is critical to IISAGE’s data collection, which will aim to engage the pet hobbyist community to collect data on domesticated animals that there is not conclusive or substantial existing data for, bridging the gap between bench science and community interest.

In addition to UAB, researchers involved in the IISAGE Biology Integration Institute come from sites including Michigan State University, Cornell University, Marquette University, Brown University, University of Houston and the University of Maryland. Peggy Biga, Ph.D., associate professor of biology at UAB, will serve as a second investigator alongside Riddle.

While exclusively animal data will be collected by the IISAGE partners, Riddle explains how downstream understanding of aging differences can potentially impact how humans approach aging and care.

“There are so many implications that aging has, and for us to have an opportunity to investigate how we could manipulate aging — be that through lifestyle changes or even medications — we could be primed to unlock the most robust understanding of aging we’ve yet known,” Riddle said. “I am eager to be a part of this research and unlocking the unknowns of aging in an effort to positively impact our world moving forward.”

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