Biological clocks as age estimation markers in animals: a systematic review and meta‐analysis

LS Le Clercq, Antoinette Kotze, J. Paul Grobler, Desire Lee Dalton

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Various biological attributes associated with individual fitness in animals change predictably over the lifespan of an organism. Therefore, the study of animal ecology and the work of conservationists frequently relies upon the ability to assign animals to functionally relevant age classes to model population fitness. Several approaches have been applied to determining individual age and, while these methods have proved useful, they are not without limitations and often lack standardisation or are only applicable to specific species. For these reasons, scientists have explored the potential use of biological clocks towards creating a universal age-determination method. Two biological clocks, tooth layer annulation and otolith layering have found universal appeal. Both methods are highly invasive and most appropriate for post-mortem age-at-death estimation. More recently, attributes of cellular ageing previously explored in humans have been adapted to studying ageing in animals for the use of less-invasive molecular methods for determining age. Here, we review two such methods, assessment of methylation and telomere length, describing (i) what they are, (ii) how they change with age, and providing (iii) a summary and meta-analysis of studies that have explored their utility in animal age determination. We found that both attributes have been studied across multiple vertebrate classes, however, telomere studies were used before methylation studies and telomere length has been modelled in nearly twice as many studies. Telomere length studies included in the review often related changes to stress responses and illustrated that telomere length is sensitive to environmental and social stressors and, in the absence of repair mechanisms such as telomerase or alternative lengthening modes, lacks the ability to recover. Methylation studies, however, while also detecting sensitivity to stressors and toxins, illustrated the ability to recover from such stresses after a period of accelerated ageing, likely due to constitutive expression or reactivation of repair enzymes such as DNA methyl transferases. We also found that both studied attributes have parentally heritable features, but the mode of inheritance differs among taxa and may relate to heterogamy. Our meta-analysis included more than 40 species in common for methylation and telomere length, although both analyses included at least 60 age-estimation models. We found that methylation outperforms telomere length in terms of predictive power evidenced from effect sizes (more than double that observed for telomeres) and smaller prediction intervals. Both methods produced age correlation models using similar sample sizes and were able to classify individuals into young, middle, or old age classes with high accuracy. Our review and meta-analysis illustrate that both methods are well suited to studying age in animals and do not suffer significantly from variation due to differences in the lifespan of the species, genome size, karyotype, or tissue type but rather that quantitative method, patterns of inheritance, and environmental factors should be the main considerations. Thus, provided that complex factors affecting the measured trait can be accounted for, both methylation and telomere length are promising targets to develop as biomarkers for age determination in animals.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages40
JournalBiological Reviews
Publication statusPublished - 25 Jun 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Images were created in . Figure 1 was reproduced with permission from the authors (Jarman ., 2015 ). This work is based on research supported wholly/in part by the National Research Foundation of South Africa (Grant Number: 112062). et al

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023 The Authors. Biological Reviews published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of Cambridge Philosophical Society.


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