Minuscule amounts of ethanol, the type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages, can more than double the life span of a tiny worm known as Caenorhabditis elegans, which is used frequently as a model in aging studies, UCLA biochemists report. The scientists said they find their discovery difficult to explain. "This finding floored us — it's shocking," said Dr. Steven Clarke, a UCLA professor of chemistry and biochemistry and the senior author of the study, published January 18, 2012 in the online journal PLoS ONE. In humans, alcohol consumption is generally harmful, Dr. Clarke said, and if the worms are given much higher concentrations of ethanol, they experience harmful neurological effects and die, other research has shown. "We used far lower levels, where it may be beneficial," said Dr. Clarke, who studies the biochemistry of aging. The worms, which grow from an egg to an adult in just a few days, are found throughout the world in soil, where they eat bacteria. Dr. Clarke's research team — Paola Castro, Dr. Shilpi Khare, and Dr. Brian Young — studied thousands of these worms during the first hours of their lives, while they were still in a larval stage. The worms normally live for about 15 days and can survive with nothing to eat for roughly 10 to 12 days. "Our finding is that tiny amounts of ethanol can make them survive 20 to 40 days," Dr. Clarke said. Initially, Dr. Clarke's laboratory intended to test the effect of cholesterol on the worms. "Cholesterol is crucial for humans," Dr. Clarke said. "We need it in our membranes, but it can be dangerous in our bloodstream." The scientists fed the worms cholesterol, and the worms lived longer, apparently due to the cholesterol. They had dissolved the cholesterol in ethanol, often used as a solvent, which they diluted 1,000-fold.
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