Meng Wang has discovered surprising new ways to boost lifespans – in fruit flies and roundworms. But her discoveries could eventually lead to new approaches for healthier aging in people, too.
A groundbreaking career in science was not exactly what Wang’s mother had expected for her daughter. Because Wang was so good at Chinese drawing and design, her mother imagined she would become an architect. But Wang was captivated and inspired by the colorful stories her father – a flight instructor – told about concepts like aerodynamics, and by stellar biology teachers who made science fun and fascinating. “I was really, really lucky,” Wang says.
Her love of science only grew after she won a scholarship at Peking University that offered undergraduates a chance to do actual research, which was unusual at the time. Wang studied genes that prolonged the lives of garden pea plants, sparking her interest in tweaking the basic machinery of biology to slow down aging.
Then, as a graduate student working with fruit flies at the University of Rochester, Wang serendipitously uncovered a surprising new pathway for longer life. She was studying a mutation to see if it enabled cells to cope better with damaging molecules called free radicals. The flies needed to be regularly transferred from old to new bottles. One day, though, Wang forgot about a rack of bottles. When she found them later, the flies with normal genes were dead, but the mutated insects were happily flying around. As Wang subsequently proved, the mutated gene not only ramps up activity in a key stress-response pathway, it also extends the flies’ lives.