In news that will have dipsomaniacs laughing all the way to the liquor store, scientists have discovered that alcohol can double lifespan.
Unfortunately, the finding only applies to worms, and to quantities of ethanol so tiny that they wouldn't get a gnat pissed. But it's still come as a big surprise.
"This finding floored us — it's shocking," says Steven Clarke, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California Los Angeles.
The scientists weren't actually aiming to establish the effects of the alcohol on Caenorhabditis elegans, used frequently as a model in aging studies, but were instead examining the effects of cholestrol - which they dissolved 1,000-fold in the ethanol.
"It's just a solvent, but it turns out the solvent was having the longevity effect. The cholesterol did nothing. We found that not only does ethanol work at a 1-to-1,000 dilution, it works at a 1-to-20,000 dilution. That tiny bit shouldn't have made any difference, but it turns out it can be so beneficial," says Clarke.
"The concentrations correspond to a tablespoon of ethanol in a bathtub full of water or the alcohol in one beer diluted into a hundred gallons of water."
The worms, which normally live for about 15 days, survived for 20 to 40 days with the booze - and appeared a great deal more robust. Unfortunately, upping the dosage by 80 times didn't have the same effect: only the very low level worked.
The team's now trying to work out why. They suspect that the worms could be utilizing ethanol directly as a precursor to synthesize high-energy metabolic intermediates, or indirectly as a signal to extend life span.
About half the genes in the worms have human counterparts, says Clarke, so there could be implications for human aging.
"While the physiological effects of high alcohol consumption have been established to be detrimental in humans, current research shows that low to moderate alcohol consumption, equivalent to one or two glasses of wine or beer a day, results in a reduction in cardiovascular disease and increased longevity," says co-author Shilpi Khare, now a postdoctoral fellow at the Novartis Research Foundation in San Diego.
"These findings could potentially aid researchers in determining how human physiology is altered to induce cardio-protective and other beneficial effects in response to low alcohol consumption."