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In Dune by Frank Herbert, there is a molecule called melange. Melange, also known as the spice, grants much longer lifespans to those who take it.

How could a molecule grant greatly extended lifespans?


Conditions:

  • The people who ingest this molecule are not immortal, merely living in the range of centuries (200-300 years).
  • This molecule is not cheap, only the rich are able to obtain it for its miraculous effects.
  • A quasi-plausible explanation of how this molecule works is equally important.

Ideas:

  • The molecule keeps our cells from removing portions of our telomeres, which are possibly accredited to our aging (although not proven).
  • Molecule greatly boosts immune system reactions, preventing disease and infection. This on its own would not keep a person living for multiple centuries, however!
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I don't think you have a very good understanding of Herbert's universe, let alone melange. – AndreiROM Feb 16 at 19:41
    
@AndreiROM I did not mention its other effects because they are not relevant to this question. – Quiquȅ Feb 16 at 19:50
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The other effects are not the point. No where in the Dune books is melange described as a "molecule". We don't know what melange is. We know that humanity, although very advanced technologically, can't produce melange on their own (and you can bet they would have tried) - it can only be done with the help of the great worms. We know humans had tried to transplant these worms to other planets with no luck. We also know that its effects can be lethal to some people. So there's significantly more to it. – AndreiROM Feb 16 at 19:57
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Doesn't "melange" literally mean "mixture"? In other words, it's not a molecule, but several different things all working together. – Mason Wheeler Feb 16 at 22:33
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It may well be that it does not have any biological effect on aging on it's own, but it simply is an enabler for psychic powers that then are able to alter the body, among the other things it allows - such as predicting future and warping space for FTL travel. – Peteris Feb 17 at 1:49
up vote 4 down vote accepted

Aging is a complex and barely understood process. While some animals have lifespans of centuries, others live for mere months. It is unclear why.

We know that what we call aging involves multiple cross-linked systems. Here's De Grey's breakdown of different types of aging damage from SENS:

  1. Mutations in chromosomes
  2. Mutations in mitochondria.
  3. Intracellular Junk
  4. Extracellular Junk
  5. Cellular Loss
  6. Cell senescence
  7. Extracellular protein crosslinks

As you can see, this is a wide-ranging field, making it difficult to argue that a single (complex) molecule complex could address all 7. More likely, an anti-aging treatment would be customized for each individual (thus expensive at start) and would consist of a complex cocktail of active agents.

Using someone else's cocktail might yield anything from near-equal benefits to deadly metastatic cancer within days.

The standard techno-utopian answer is that all sorts of miracles will become possible with nanotechnology: we will simply build nanobots to wander our bloodstream and clean up stuff. The problem with that is that at nanoscales, stuff gets squishy and sticky. Without their own repair mechanisms, nanobots are likely to malfunction and could end up doing more harm than good after a while. Moreover, without a way to centralize information and determine a path forward strategically, said nanobots would be unable to determine a best path forward.

This is why a realistic answer (from the perspective of our current technological frontier) involves an ever-shifting cocktail designed specifically for the individual, specifically for the exact circumstances their body is in at the time. One size likely will not fit all.

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As I recall there was a study looking at metabolic and pulse rates vs life span that demonstrated a direct correlation. A decrease in heart rate resulted in an increase in life span. Sadly I can't find that specific study, but seems like there's quite a few suggesting a possible correlation. – Kaithar Feb 17 at 3:38

Because it's not a molecule.

The melange is not a molecule, it's only referred to as a "drug". A drug could be a molecule, but from the effects it has it is clearly not something as simple as a molecule.

I suggest that melange is actually more similar to synthetic life, a nanobot. Formed from the silica sands of Dune in a process modulated by the sandworms, these naturally occurring nanobots are highly complex and can easily extend the life and abilities of those who consume it. I only call them nanobots because of what they're made of, they are life, just not like any life we know. Think of them as part of the sandworm's immune system.

They become so important to the continued functioning of the body that, if not replenished, the host dies. Simply shortening telomeres and improving immune functions would have passive improvement effects, a molecule could do this, but its removal would not result in death. This makes it more clear that the drug is an active one. It improves these processes by replacing them, not simply modifying the existing mechanisms.

(/handwave)

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Your melange like drug (let's call it "multum vita" for "long life") is actually a hormone.

Hormone, from Wikipedia:

A hormone (Greek:ὁρμή, "impetus") is any member of a class of signaling molecules produced by glands in multicellular organisms that are transported by the circulatory system to target distant organs to regulate physiology and behaviour. [...] The term hormone is sometimes extended to include chemicals produced by cells that affect the same cell (autocrine or intracrine signalling) or nearby cells (paracrine signalling).

Hormones are used to communicate between organs and tissues to physiological regulation and behavioral activities, such as digestion, metabolism, respiration, tissue function, sensory perception, sleep, excretion, lactation, stress, growth and development, movement, reproduction, and mood.

Consider a hormone as a biological switch. It activates, deactivates, and/or regulates activity on a genetic, cellular, and organ level.

What we'll suppose is that deeply buried in our DNA are instructions that allow an organism to live essentially forever and live that life with vitality. This biological behavior didn't serve as a survival function in humans and so was eventually lost.

This capability is known to exist in several living species including at least one mammalian species (the Bowhead Whale).

The multum vita drug triggers this biological behavior to activate and allows humans to live forever too.

However, since the ability to produce this hormone is lost in the human body, people will require a constant supply of the drug to maintain therapeutic blood serum levels.

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The simple answer is that it can't. The only way that something like Melange would work is if it was far more complex than a simple molecule. Maybe symbiotic bacteria or viruses within the plant that are also able to act on mammalian systems once ingested.

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The supposed 'molecule' may possibly be some chemical compound that, in regards to the theory on telomeres, causes the continuous production of telomerase as a way to keep them from deteriorating. Another theory to long life I looked for was of somehow removing or neutralizing something called P21, a gene that limits cell multiplication, to make cancer less likely to form. Both of these effects together would, hypothetically, effectively render someone ageless and give them accelerated regeneration, but I recall the main drawback being that severe cancer is likely to occur and spread quickly. – Naos Feb 16 at 19:37
    
@Naos - you're ignoring the fact that melange does significantly more than simply allow people to live longer. – AndreiROM Feb 16 at 19:59

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