Sci. Aging Knowl. Environ., 28 June 2006
Vol. 2006, Issue 10, p. vp1
[DOI: 10.1126/sageke.2006.10.vp1]


I Come Not to Bury SAGE KE But to Appraise It

Evelyn Strauss

Lilies won't adorn SAGE KE's coffin, and you won't hear the faintest strain of "Taps." But we pay tribute to influential dead people with eulogies, so why not an influential Web site? Often a family member does the honors, recounting the person's life and impact on those left behind. As a co-creator of SAGE KE, I have watched the site grow from infancy to maturity and am now witnessing its last virtual breaths. This piece is an inside--and personal--view of the site's life and includes some observations about how aging-related research has changed over the last 6 years.

I started paying close attention to this field before SAGE KE's birth. A Scientific American (Sci Am) editor commissioned me to write two stories--one on telomeres and one on possible mechanisms of aging--for the magazine's 2000 special issue entitled "The Quest to Beat Aging." I spent hours trying to convince my editor that the motivation for the telomere article was wrong: Most researchers in the field had discarded the notion that shriveling chromosomes act as an hourglass for an organism's life, measuring the minutes to a creature's demise. The idea was freshly dead--still warm enough that questions about it seemed to make many of my sources' blood pressures spike. While working on the stories, I interviewed Cynthia Kenyon about the daf-2 pathway and remembered from my days as a University of California, San Francisco, graduate student how fast she talks when she's excited, which seems to be always. I also learned about three-year-old Sam Berns and Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome (HGPS). Sam's mother, Leslie Gordon, made him real for me with her descriptions of his fascination with astronauts and starfish. No one knew what caused HGPS and hints were sparse. I was not yet a parent, but when I hung up the phone with Leslie, I was shaking. Her determination to do everything she could to save her child resonated in me.

After tying up those stories, I filed away my notes on aging until later that year, when Ellis Rubinstein, then editor of Science (now president of the New York Academy of Sciences), phoned to ask whether I was interested in working on an exciting new Web site. He envisioned an online information source and meeting place for researchers in a field that lacked a unifying journal or conference, yet was on the verge of a scientific boom. I would have complete stylistic freedom in running the news section of SAGE KE, he said, and I'd create the site with Kelly LaMarco.

I had met Kelly almost a decade earlier at a Gordon conference. Despite the wine and the late hour, her deep intelligence and creative spark energized me. We had kept in touch and had fantasized about finding a way to work together. One of Kelly's most recent successes had triggered Ellis's phone call. She had written a grant proposal and constructed a demo site that persuaded the Ellison Medical Foundation--with strong backing from its Scientific Advisory Board's Chair Josh Lederberg--to fund SAGE KE. I inspected the site while considering the job offer. She had included an "Aging in the Arts" section, with reproductions of paintings and poetry on aging that researchers could use to help lay audiences, students, or others connect with the science. That feature delighted me--and the entire demo site impressed me. Collaborating with someone so inventive and creating a valuable resource for a burgeoning field seemed like too good of an opportunity to pass up. Furthermore, SAGE KE's editor-in-chief was (and is) George Martin, a luminary in the field whom I'd come to know while working on my Sci Am articles. I signed on to the project.

In early 2001, while we were developing SAGE KE, researchers made a breakthrough: Defects in the insulin/insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) pathway extended life span in fruit flies as well as worms. No longer could anyone dismiss nematodes as a biological aberration that aged in a unique way. Deducing general rules of aging by studying invertebrates suddenly seemed much more reasonable than it had previously. While writing up this work for Science, I discovered firsthand that one of the motivations for launching SAGE KE was well founded: The field was fragmented. Investigators in one area didn't necessarily know about work in another. A prominent molecular biologist I interviewed for that story knew very little about the long-lived Ames and Snell dwarf mice, which have defects in the IGF-1 pathway. This communication gap surprised me: Studies on the rodents hinted that life-span-enhancing perturbations in the pathway might extend to mammals. But it also confirmed the notion that SAGE KE had arrived at a propitious time and that building bridges among different subdisciplines was a worthwhile venture.

By spring, I was working more than 90 hours a week on the site, conceiving content, assigning stories, editing, ironing out procedures with the production folks at Science, doing smart things like hiring the bright and industrious John Davenport and dumb things like trying to avoid learning HTML. One day, copy editor and grammar goddess Linda Felaco mentioned that I was a morning person--always at work early even though I had sent her messages at 1 a.m. the previous night. This comment chafed at a core of my identity. I had been a night person for as long as I could remember. I even got thrown out of morning kindergarten. "It just doesn't seem to be her time of day," the teacher told my mother. But Kelly and I--with immense support from Allan Bell and others at Highwire Press as well as many people at AAAS (publisher of SAGE KE), including those in the E-media, copy, proofreading, production, and art departments--were transferring our imaginations onto the screen. The site was coming to life, and the exhilaration of participating in that process fueled our endurance.

We launched SAGE KE on 3 October 2001.

As Ellis and his colleagues predicted, the pace of discovery accelerated significantly during the site's life. Findings in the last 5 years have deepened our knowledge about aging, revealing unexpected complexities and nuances. For example, calorie restriction might enhance longevity even if started in adulthood. Mice with only one good copy of MnSOD, a protein that disarms toxic reactive oxygen species in mitochondria, live for normal lengths of time, despite accruing extra oxidative damage. Researchers are now probing not just single life-span pathways, but also whether and how calorie restriction interacts or overlaps with the effects of gene perturbations that influence longevity. And the rate at which investigators are unearthing mutations that prolong life is breathtaking. Early in SAGE KE's existence, we wrote about every newly discovered life-span-extending mutation. But we've become accustomed to such findings and now require more than a longevity effect to cover that type of result.

The experience of working on the site has changed too. When SAGE KE writers and editors phoned researchers in 2001 to request comments on other scientists' papers or to commission a Perspective or Review, we had to spend the first 10 minutes explaining. "No, we're not Science; we're a separate publication, focused solely on aging." "Yes, our Reviews are peer reviewed." "No, our Perspectives are not." "No, of course we won't break an embargo." "Yes, we know what 'allele' means." A few years later, researchers were approaching us at meetings. They recognized our names and volunteered feedback on articles we had published.

The generosity of people in the field has inspired those of us who've worked on the site's content. Countless researchers have patiently educated us, often putting their test tubes or grant proposals on ice to answer pressing questions. Students, postdocs, and staff in our Scientific Advisory Board members' labs scanned journals and provided expert analysis of new findings. The site's visitors offered unsolicited kudos as well as suggestions for improvements. This feature of the SAGE KE enterprise--strong relationships between researchers and the staff--undoubtedly has enhanced the quality of our reporting and editing. I can't list here the large number of scientists who've contributed to the site, but I am grateful to each one.

We've had a lot of ideas for embellishments to SAGE KE--some good in principle but not practice, others good on both counts, some crazy. We tried to build a virtual meeting place, where people critiqued each other's work. During focus groups before we launched, researchers indicated that they wanted to participate in such discussions, but few comments appeared. Numerous investigators told us that they would be more likely to contribute if they didn't have to reveal their identities. So we made it possible to post anonymously. The comments remained elusive. SAGE KE visitors wound up using the site more as a source of information than anything else, although a few discussions did crop up on the bulletin board. Other ideas proved more successful: the Genes/Interventions Database, Classic Papers, and Case Studies, for example. And I am still pretty sure that PetSAGE, whose goal would have been to promote longevity of household animals, would have been more popular than photos of Angelina and Brad's baby. That site would undoubtedly have paid for SAGE KE as well as itself. Unfortunately, the SAGE KE editors never got around to suggesting this idea to senior AAAS management.

Over the years, I've luxuriated in the opportunity to immerse myself in a field of study without pipetting a single microliter. What a rare opportunity as a journalist to get to know the researchers as well as the research so well--and to watch people grow as scientists. I first talked to Matt Kaeberlein when he was a grad student in Lenny Guarente's lab. He wanted to know whether we wanted the Genes/Interventions Database to include diseases of aging such as cancer, as he took charge of creating that online tool. Since then, Matt left academia for industry and came back. A few months ago, he unpacked the beakers in his own lab. I have also had the great pleasure of befriending some researchers in the field. Little did I know when I first interviewed Gordon Lithgow on a worn couch at the 2001 Gordon Conference on aging that I would be sitting in his living room 4 years later, listening to him and Daniel Promislow play folk tunes while Julie Andersen and I talked about juggling parenting with professional work. And I wouldn't have predicted after our first Scientific Advisory Board meeting that board member Judy Campisi would wind up toting a teeny, tie-dyed onesie from Berkeley to a meeting in Aussois, France, for my baby who would be born a few months later.

I've had terrific fun working with a crew of extraordinarily talented writers and editors, only a few of whom I have room to mention. Heather McDonald came on board soon after we launched the site, editing scientist-written content. Since Kelly's departure 2 years ago, Heather has run that portion of the site, with the help of Richard Turner and then Laura Bonetta. Mitch Leslie set the standard for our news section with his kickoff Orientation Article ("Aging Research Grows Up"), and he has stuck with SAGE KE through the end (see "Death-Bed Prophecy"). His careful reporting and light touch with words have informed and entertained seasoned investigators in the field as well as novices. John Davenport still remembers every aging-related discovery since 2001, even though he left us for a job at Brown University last October. During his tenure with SAGE KE, he grappled with some of the toughest issues, wrestling them to the ground in his ambitious stories. Mary Beckman's imaginative flair brightens the site's collection, and her persistence in getting questions answered strengthens it. Laura Helmuth enriched SAGE KE with her sophisticated knowledge of neurobiology, acting as an unofficial adviser on that topic and writing several insightful stories about the normal and abnormal aging brain. Furthermore, she's done a lot of pinch-hit editing. Ingfei Chen introduced our readers to a couple of dozen researchers in the field with her thoughtful profiles, and she brought some of what she learned about aging to the larger world by publishing a piece in the New York Times about Andrzej Bartke's work on dwarf mice. One of her SAGE KE articles--on parallels between in vitro fertilization in the 1970s and embryonic stem cell research today--landed on the reading list of a National Academy of Sciences committee that was developing voluntary guidelines for human embryonic stem cell research. We reached others beyond the realm of aging through our collaboration with the Alliance for Aging Research. Dan Perry, Debbie Zeldow, and their colleagues created SAGE Crossroads. Karen Hopkin painstakingly edited the articles we published there on the policy, social, and ethical implications of aging-related research. Finally, Monica Bradford, executive editor of Science, provided important support for SAGE KE and promoted it within and outside AAAS. She and Don Kennedy, the magazine's editor-in-chief, campaigned hard to save the site.

These days, anyone would be hard-pressed to find a person in the field who isn't well informed about the long-lived dwarf mice. Last November, I met Sam Berns at the Progeria Research Foundation's International Workshop. The discovery that glitches in the lamin A gene underlie HGPS has broken that field wide open. Productivity has surpassed our resources to write about it, and treatments for the syndrome might be on the horizon.

Now we're laying SAGE KE to rest. I expect that it will provide fertile soil on which the field will continue to bloom for quite some time. In the long run, the site should serve as a detailed fossil record of research on aging from 2001 to 2006. I will venture forward, enriched by my interaction with it; I hope you will too.

June 28, 2006

Evelyn Strauss is Senior News Editor of SAGE KE. She hopes there is life after death.

Citation: E. Strauss, I Come Not to Bury SAGE KE But to Appraise It. Sci. Aging Knowl. Environ. 2006 (10), vp1 (2006).

Science of Aging Knowledge Environment. ISSN 1539-6150