While conducting research on a protein-repair enzyme, a team of UCLA scientists discovered that small amounts of ethanol can increase the life expectancy of certain worms.

During an exploration of the effects of cholesterol on larvae lifespan, UCLA chemistry and biochemistry professor Steven Clarke and his team discovered that trace amounts of ethanol — the form of alcohol that constitutes intoxicating beverages — can display lifesaving qualities. The experiment yielded a longevity effect that extended the average lifespan of Caenorhabditis elegans from 15 to 40 days.

Shlipi Khare, a postdoctoral fellow at the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation, said the experiment’s results were difficult for researchers to explain.

“While the mechanism of action is still not clearly understood, our evidence indicates that these 1 mm-long roundworms could be utilizing ethanol directly as a precursor for biosynthesis of high energy metabolic intermediates or indirectly as a signal to extend lifespan,” Khare said in an email.

According to Clarke, it was Paola Castro, a Minority Access to Research Careers trainee at the time, who discovered the link between ethanol and increased life span.

“Paola was able to establish within a few months of her arrival in the lab that it was the ethanol and not the cholesterol that was responsible for the starvation resistance in the L1 larvae,” Clarke said.

Castro, who worked on the experiment for three years before graduating from UCLA in 2010, said trace amounts of ethanol can yield substantial biological alterations in the tiny worms.

“What is even more interesting is the fact that the worms are in a stressed developmental stage,” Castro said in a press release. “At high magnifications under the microscope, it was amazing to see how the worms given a little ethanol looked significantly more robust than worms not given ethanol.”

Co-author and medical student Brian Young said the alcohol makes its way into the worms’ metabolism and helps sustain life during long periods of starvation.

“We were somewhat perplexed by the lifespan extension during growth in ethanol,” Young said in an email. “To better understand the nature of this surprising finding, I developed some analytical chemistry assays to show that the ethanol fed to the nematodes was in fact metabolized, revealing a possible mechanism of action.”

Although no evidence demonstrated a correlation between worm and human responses to ethanol, Khare said further research could lead to new discoveries.

“Whether or not these findings can be translated into therapy for humans afflicted with cardiovascular disease is not yet known, but we are intrigued by the possibilities,” Khare said.