The insulin-like signaling pathway maintains a relatively short wild-type lifespan in Caenorhabditis elegans by phosphorylating and inactivating DAF-16, the ortholog of the FOXO transcription factors of mammalian cells. DAF-16 is phosphorylated by the AKT kinases, preventing its nuclear translocation. Calcineurin (PP2B phosphatase) also limits the lifespan of C. elegans, but the mechanism through which it does so is unknown. Herein, we show that TAX-6•CNB-1 and UNC-43, the C. elegans Calcineurin and Ca2+/calmodulin-dependent kinase type II (CAMKII) orthologs, respectively, also regulate lifespan through DAF-16. Moreover, UNC-43 regulates DAF-16 in response to various stress conditions, including starvation, heat or oxidative stress, and cooperatively contributes to lifespan regulation by insulin signaling. However, unlike insulin signaling, UNC-43 phosphorylates and activates DAF-16, thus promoting its nuclear localization. The phosphorylation of DAF-16 at S286 by UNC-43 is removed by TAX-6•CNB-1, leading to DAF-16 inactivation. Mammalian FOXO3 is also regulated by CAMKIIA and Calcineurin.
Although aging might seem to be a passive process—resulting simply from wear and tear over a lifetime—it can actually be accelerated or slowed down by genetic mutations. This phenomenon has been most thoroughly studied in the nematode worm, Caenorhabditis elegans. Normally, this worm lives for just two or three weeks, but genetic mutations that reduce the activity of certain enzymes in a series of biochemical reactions known as the insulin/IGF-1 signalling pathway can extend its lifespan by up to a factor of ten, and similar effects have been seen in flies and mice. Lifespans can also be increased by blocking other signalling pathways or restricting the intake of calories.
This increase in lifespan associated with the insulin/IGF-1 signalling pathway is known to involve a protein called DAF-16 and two kinases called AKT-1 and AKT-2. Under normal conditions the AKT kinases add several phosphate groups to the DAF-16, which prevents it from travelling to the nucleus of the cell. However, when genetic techniques are used to block the insulin/IGF-1 signalling pathway, the AKT kinases are unable to add the phosphate groups; this leaves the DAF-16 free to enter the nucleus, where it activates a network of genes that promotes longevity.
In addition to kinases, the insulin/IGF-1 signalling pathway also involves enzymes called phosphatases that remove the phosphate groups from other proteins. In particular, a phosphatase called calcineurin is known to be involved in the regulation of lifespan, but the details of this process are not fully understood.
Now, Tao et al. have carried out a series of genetic and biochemical experiments to determine how phosphatases exert their influence on aging. The results show that calcineurin targets DAF-16, the same protein that is targeted by the AKT kinases. Moreover, another kinase also targets DAF-16 when the worm is exposed to heat, starvation or some other form of stress: this kinase, which is not involved in the insulin/IGF-1 signalling pathway, is called CAMKII.
Tao et al. show that these kinases act on DAF-16 in different ways: CAMKII activates it by adding the phosphate group at a specific site known as S286, whereas the AKT kinases deactivate DAF-16 because they add phosphate groups at different sites, thereby preventing it from entering the nucleus. Calcineurin neutralizes the effect of CAMKII by removing the phosphate group at S286 to deactivate the DAF-16.
In addition to shedding new light on the regulation of lifespan in C. elegans, the new results could improve our understanding of aging in humans, and also the development of diabetes and other age-related diseases, because the equivalent molecules in mammalian cells are regulated in similar ways.