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Hibernation Slows Biological Aging in Bats, UMD-led Study Finds

By Emily C. Nunez

The most common bat in the United States, the big brown bat, boasts an unusually long lifespan of up to 19 years. A new study led by University of Maryland researchers identifies one of the secrets to this bat’s exceptional longevity: hibernation.

“Hibernators tend to live much longer than migrators,” said the study’s senior author, UMD Biology Professor Gerald Wilkinson. “We knew that, but we didn’t know if we would detect changes in epigenetic age due to hibernation.”

The researchers determined that hibernating over one winter extends a big brown bat’s epigenetic clock—a biological marker of aging—by three-quarters of a year. The study, published today in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, also included scientists from McMaster University and the University of Waterloo, both in Ontario, Canada.

They analyzed small tissue samples taken from the wings of 20 big brown bats (Eptesicus fuscus) ranging in age from less than 1 year old to more than 10 years old during the winter when they hibernated and in the summer when they were active.

The researchers measured changes in DNA methylation—a biological process associated with gene regulation—between samples taken from the same animal during active and hibernating periods. They discovered that changes in DNA methylation occurred at certain sites in the bat’s genome, and these sites appeared to be affecting metabolism during hibernation.

“It’s pretty clear that the sites that decrease methylation in the winter are the ones that appear to be having an active effect,” Wilkinson said. “Many of the genes that are nearest to them are known to be involved in regulating metabolism, so they presumably keep metabolism down.”

Some of these genes are the same ones that Wilkinson and fellow researchers identified as “longevity genes” in a previous study.

Read the full news release on the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences website.

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