With NIH funding, UO prof dives deeper into aging research

Professor and students in lab

A look into how environmental variables accelerate, slow or even reverse the aging process is the focus of a University of Oregon anthropologist whose research was recently funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Kirstin Sterner, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology, and her molecular anthropology group are studying aging and its biological impacts and are investigating why some individuals age faster or slower than others. 

The two-year award of $424,412 comes from the National Institute on Aging at the NIH. This research is part of an ongoing collaboration between principal investigators Sterner and Lucia Carbone, a geneticist at Oregon Health & Science University. 

Sterner and her colleagues have worked on the project over the last several years, and being recognized with federal funding only solidified their drive to continue.

“It felt great knowing that our proposal had been well-received and we could take this research to the next level,” Sterner said.

Aging, and the genetic and environmental factors that influence it, has always been a point of interest for Sterner. The funding will allow her and her team to examine and characterize biological aging at the molecular level. They will test how environmental variables, such as different diets, interact with the genome to influence the aging process.

Their research studies how the epigenome — higher-level changes to the genome that shape which parts of it are active — changes across tissues in the body throughout the life span, Sterner said. 

As part of the research, Sterner’s team is developing and using epigenetic clocks. A model that predicts chronological age from epigenetic data, an epigenetic clock can serve as a biomarker of biological age.

The team uses the clocks to test whether certain environmental variables — in this case, diet — accelerate or decelerate the aging process. When an individual’s biological age is significantly greater than their chronological age it suggests faster aging, whereas a lower biological age might suggest slower aging.

Sterner’s research builds off of Elisabeth Goldman’s dissertation research on aging.

“This project branches out in new ways from my dissertation research,” said Goldman, a recent UO doctoral student of Sterner’s and a current member of the research team. “For example, we’re incorporating different types of molecular data (such as brain and blood data) so we can continue to flesh out the nuances of how the epigenome changes with age.”

While Goldman said studying a phenomena as complex as aging can be difficult, her cutting-edge work on Sterner’s team has been rewarding.

“I feel really fortunate to have had the opportunity to ask and explore questions using tools that have really only become available in the last few years,” Goldman said.

As they continue the grant-funded research over the next two years, the team hopes to characterize molecular signatures of aging. In locating biomarkers of biological age, they hope to identify tissues involved in age-related disease.

Alongside the research, Sterner said she enjoys collaborating with her research team. “Building these collaborations and sharing ideas with a diverse group of researchers trained in different fields has been one of the most rewarding parts of this project so far.”

—By Alyson Johnston, College of Arts and Sciences