I finally had a chance to talk to a biologist, as I promised I would do. She is a leading investigator into what is called “the aging clock.” According to this theory — and, she hastens to add, it’s only a theory — advanced organisms have a type of programmed aging built into their systems. This can be seen most dramatically by comparing common pigeons with a similar sized bird called the Japanese quail. A Japanese quail begins age at a year and a half, losing tail feathers and so on. But in a pigeon, those signs don’t appear for about fifteen years. That’s a factor of ten. The birds are otherwise very similar, and so it is reasonable to hypothesize that the difference in life span is due to a built in biological control mechanism. Now, if we apply the same factor of ten to ourselves, might we not come up with someone who seems in a practical sense “immortal?” Or, what if in some of them the aging clock is stopped entirely? A person like that would never age at all.
It would have to be a rare mutation (or set of mutations.) But it is not impossible. Even a dyed-in-the wool skeptic like me can consider a possibility such as this.
And, if such a set of mutations were discovered, it could lead to an intervention: Using a gene altering retrovirus, these genes could in theory be inserted into ordinary mortals, like you and me. (Biologists already know how to build retroviruses to deliver a genetic payload, though some practical problems remain.) — Stephen