Leonard Hayflick was the first to propose that the senescence of normal cells may contribute to the organismal ageing. Investigations into this proposal started by comparing the replicative potential of cells, usually fibroblasts, extracted from individuals at various ages.
The first of these studies showed an inverse relationship between donor age and the number of population doublings achieved in vitro (Martin et al, 1970). This study looked at the replicative lifespan of fibroblasts taken from 100 subjects with an age range from foetal to 90 years. These cells were cultured and the number of population doublings before entering senescence was recorded. The results showed that the replicative potential decreased as donor age increased. A later study showed similar results (Schneider, 1979). This study looked at the ability of fibroblasts taken from young (20-35 years) and old (65+ years) to proliferate in culture. It was reported that cell cultures from old human donors have a reduction in their proliferative capacity. A more recent study looked at the replicative capacity of human adrenocortical cells to proliferate as a function of donor age (Yang et al, 2001). Again, it was found that younger cells have a higher proliferative capability than the old. In this instance, population doubling fell from 50 for foetal cells to almost a total lack of division in culture from older cells.
To investigate the possible link between replicative lifespan and organismal ageing, a few studies compared replicative capacity with longevity in animals. One such study investigated the relationship between longevity of eight mammalian species (mouse, rat, rat-kangaroo, mink, rabbit, bat, horse and human) and the lifespan of normal fibroblasts in vitro (Röhme, 1981). It was reported that there was a direct relationship found between the longevity of the eight mammalian species and the replicative capacity of their cultured fibroblasts. A much later, but similar study, compared animal life spans and in vitro replicative capacity of skin fibroblasts in groupings of small, middle, large, and very large breeds of dogs of specific ages (Li et al, 1996). It was found that the life spans were inversely correlated to the frame sizes of the breeds. It was shown that all the small breeds studied have a longer life span than that of the large breeds. The replicative capacity of fibroblasts from the large dogs (Great Dane and Irish Wolfhound) was significantly decreased compared with that of the small dogs. The reasoning behind these observations may again be due to varying degrees of cell turnover between the species. Large dogs consist of more cells than small dogs and as a result more cell turnover was initially required in their development compared to small dogs. This increase in cell turnover would subsequently lead to a decrease in replicative potential and an increase in the rate of senescent cell formation.
Interestingly, a recent study looked at the replicative capacity of 124 skin fibroblast cell lines from donors of different ages which were medically examined and declared “healthy” (Cristofalo et al, 1998). Healthy people were used specifically as previous studies, discussed later, have shown that disease states may accelerate the reduction in replicative capacity. Results indicated that there was no significant correlation between the replicative capacity of the cell lines and donor age. In the same study, a comparison of multiple cell lines established from the same donors of different ages also failed to show any significant differences. It was concluded that the replicative capacity of fibroblasts in vitro does not correlate with donor age. However, differences in replicative capacity with age may only be observed as a result of increased cell turnover in response to disease and cellular injury. Therefore, a healthy old person who has had little or no cellular injuries or disease would have had little cell turnover and therefore have cells which may have a replicative capacity similar to someone much younger. Thus, this study supports the notion that replicative capacity is an indicator of biological age.