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Cornell is co-leading a five-year, $12.5 million grant from the National Sciences Foundation to form the IISAGE Biology Integration Institute aimed at identifying mechanisms and evolution of sex differences between females and males in aging.

The grant, awarded by the National Sciences Foundation on Sept. 1 and co-led by the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), brings together expertise from across the country 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. Jingyue (Ellie) Duan, assistant professor in the Department of Animal Science in the College of Agriculture and Life plays a critical role in the analytical team of evolutionary systems biology and will bring her expertise in epigenetics and genomic data integration. She also co-leads the establishment of the database infrastructure in the IISAGE Biology Integration Institute.

Sex-specific aging is widespread and highly diverse across the animal tree of life. Among mammals, females tend to live longer, but in some bat species and European rabbits, males are longer lived than females, and some species lack sex differences in lifespan,” Duan said. “Fish, reptiles, insects, and other invertebrates also show striking variation in sexspecific longevity. However, due to the challenges posed by this diversity and complexity, there are currently no rules that explain sex-specific aging both within and among species.” IISAGE aims to answer the question – What causes sex-specific aging and how does it evolve?

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, explains Nicole Riddle, principal investigator and associate professor of biology in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences. “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.

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 no conclusive or substantial existing data, bridging the gap between bench science and community interest.

In addition to Cornell and UAB, researchers involved in the IISAGE Biology Integration Institute come from sites including Michigan State University, Marquette University, Brown University, University of Houston, University of Kansas, and the University of Maryland.

While exclusively animal data will be collected by the IISAGE partners, Duan explains how downstream understanding of aging differences can potentially impact the fields of sustainable agriculture and human health. “By understanding livestock animal growth and aging, we can potentially increase their production length and lactational longevity, reduce animal replacement rate, leading to reduce carbon footprints of the production system and decrease costs to farmers,” said Duan. “And in humans, aging-related fatal diseases such as Alzheimer’s and heart disease are often sexually dimorphic.”


A version of this story first appeared in UAB News.

Savannah Koplon is a Public Relations Manager, Traditional University Campus at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

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