The powerful tool that the researchers applied to the mouse is called “reprogramming.” It’s a way to reset the body’s so-called epigenetic marks: chemical switches in a cell that determine which of its genes are turned on and which are off. Erase these marks and a cell can forget if it was ever a skin or a bone cell, and revert to a much more primitive, embryonic state. The technique is frequently used by laboratories to manufacture stem cells. But Izpisúa Belmonte is in a vanguard of scientists who want to apply reprogramming to whole animals and, if they can control it precisely, to human bodies.
Izpisúa Belmonte believes epigenetic reprogramming may prove to be an “elixir of life” that will extend human life span significantly. Life expectancy has increased more than twofold in the developed world over the past two centuries. Thanks to childhood vaccines, seat belts, and so on, more people than ever reach natural old age. But there is a limit to how long anyone lives, which Izpisúa Belmonte says is because our bodies wear down through inevitable decay and deterioration. “Aging,” he writes, “is nothing other than molecular aberrations that occur at the cellular level.” It is, he says, a war with entropy that no individual has ever won.