Almost all our cells harbor a sensory organelle called the primary cilium, homologous to the better known flagella found in protists. Some of these cilia can beat and allow the cell to move (eg. in sperm), or move fluid (eg. cerebrospinal fluid) around them. However, other specialized cilia such as those found in photoreceptor cells and in our olfactory neurons function solely as sensory organelles, providing the primary site for signal reception and transduction. The vast majority of our somatic cells display a short and simple rod-like cilium that plays crucial roles during development and in adulthood. For instance, during development, they are essential for transducing critical secreted developmental signals such as Sonic hedgehog that is required for the elaboration of cell types in almost every tissue (eg. in brain, bones, muscles, skin). In adults, cilia are required for normal functioning of our kidneys, and primary cilia in hypothalamic neurons have been shown to regulate hunger and satiety.
Given their importance, it is not surprising that defects in cilia structure and function lead to a whole host of diseases ranging from severe developmental disorders and embryonic lethality to hydrocephalus (fluid accumulation in the brain), infertility, obesity, blindness, and polycystic kidney among others. Often these diseases manifest early in development resulting in prenatal death or severe disability, but milder ciliary dysfunction leads to disease phenotypes later in life.
Much is now known about how cilia are formed and how they function during development. However, surprisingly, how aging affects cilia, and possibly the severity of cilia-related diseases, is not well studied. A new study by postdocs Astrid Cornils and Ashish Maurya, and graduate student Lauren Tereshko from Piali Sengupta’s laboratory, and collaborators at University College Dublin and University of Iowa, begins to address this question using the microscopic roundworm C. elegans (pictured below). These worms display cilia on a set of sensory neurons; these cilia are built by mechanisms that are similar to those in other animals including in humans. Worms have a life span of about 2-3 weeks, thereby making the study of how aging affects cilia function quite feasible.
They find that cilia structure is somewhat altered in extreme old age in control animals. However, unexpectedly, when they looked at animals carrying mutations that lead to human ciliary diseases, the severely defective cilia seen in larvae and young adults displayed a partial but significant recovery during middle-age, a period associated with declining reproductive function. They went on to show that the heat-shock response and the ubiquitin-proteasome system, two major pathways required for alleviating protein misfolding stress in aging and neurodegenerative diseases, are essential for this age-dependent cilia recovery in mutant animals. This restoration of cilia function is transient; cilia structure becomes defective again in extreme old age. These results suggest that increased function of protein quality control mechanisms during middle age can transiently suppress the effects of some mutations in cilia genes, and raise the possibility that these findings may help guide the design of therapeutic strategies to target specific ciliary diseases. Some things can improve with aging!