Bioethics Blogs

Secrets of a Supercentenarian’s Genome

Hennie with her family

Caption: Hendrikje van Andel-Schipper (2nd from the left) in her youth. She was born June 29, 1890, premature and so tiny that no one thought she would survive. However, she lived to be 115.
Credit: Ramon Schipper

Not too long before 115-year-old Hendrikje “Hennie” van Andel-Schipper died in 2005, this Dutch “supercentenarian” attributed her remarkable longevity to eating raw salted herring, to drinking orange juice, and—with a twinkle in her eye—“to breathing.”

Because very few humans have survived as long Hennie, it’s only logical to ask whether some of the secrets to her impressive lifespan might lie in her genes. And we find ourselves in a great position to explore such questions, thanks to the convergence of two things: recent advances in DNA sequencing technology, and Hennie’s generous decision, made when she was a mere 82 years old, to donate her body to science upon her death.

An international team of scientists, partly funded by NIH, recently set about using DNA sequencing technology to examine Hennie’s genome: both to know what DNA she was born with, but also to look for somatic mutations—the type of DNA mutations that we don’t inherit and that are acquired over the course of our lives. Somatic mutations can occur if a mistake is made when DNA copies itself during cell division or may be caused by environmental factors, such as tobacco or ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Most somatic mutations are harmless, but some can lead to cancer and other diseases.

Led by Henne Holstege of Vrije University (VU) Medical Center in Amsterdam, researchers sequenced the genome of Hennie’s blood, which contains the cells that have undergone the most cell divisions over the course of a lifetime, and, consequently, are most prone to mutation.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.