Like a mountaineer looking at an unclimbed peak, Dan Gottschling is after something big. Since the 1980s, he has scoured the ins and outs of tiny yeast cells for clues to the molecular underpinnings of life – clues that he hopes will have parallels in humans. Now he's using this same model organism to understand the relationship between cancer and aging – a problem that has long vexed biologists.
Throughout his career, Gottschling has endeavored to discover things that no one else has seen before. "I believe as scientists, we should be asking questions that are really hard to address," he says. "That's what drives me."
Gottschling was inspired to study the connection between aging and cancer after learning some startling statistics: A person's risk of developing cancer starts to increase exponentially around age 40. By age 55, men have a 50 percent chance and women have a 33 percent chance of acquiring some form of the disease.
Stunned by this correlation, Gottschling turned to his yeast cells for clues. "We wondered if we could use our yeast to ask: Is there some fundamental process that happens in all cells as they get older that might explain the increased incidence of cancer?" he says.
Indeed, Gottschling's theory of cancer and aging has grown more complex over the years, along with the size and scope of his project. Yet he's optimistic he'll find the answers to his questions.
"We've learned that the problem is more complicated than people hoped it would be," he says. "But it's also finite, I would argue."
The sequencing of the yeast genome, for instance, along with that of 40 other strains of yeast, has made it substantially easier to decipher the various genes and proteins involved. New technology that can make sense of all the molecular information has also increased the pace of research in a dramatic way.
"Things are moving pretty rapidly," Gottschling says. "It's pretty fun right now."