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Since 1925 UCLA has honored its most distinguished scholars by selecting them to deliver this special annual lecture. By honoring them in this way, members of the academic community have an opportunity to appreciate these scholars' achievements in a way they may not have otherwise had.

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107th Faculty Research Lecture

Aging & Rejuvenation:
Chemistry and Biology at Work

Steven G. Clarke,
Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry

November 3, 2009

Steven G. Clarke, a Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, is an authority on the biochemistry of the aging process and how protein modification can regulate biological function. A UCLA faculty member since 1978, Clarke is proud to say that he has had a 43-year relationship with the campus. Starting in 1966, when he was an undergraduate at Pomona College in Claremont, he spent his summers at UCLA working as a lab assistant for Professor Don Lindsley, a brain researcher who happened to be the 1960 Faculty Research Lecturer.

In the 107th Faculty Research Lecture, “Aging and Rejuvenation: Chemistry and Biology at Work,” Clarke focuses on the fascinating dichotomy between two crucial disciplines: chemistry and biology. “I’m going to talk about aging as ‘warfare’ between chemistry and biology,” he said. “Chemistry is the ‘bad guy’ that results in spontaneous degradation of molecules that make us up. Biology fights back and tries to build them up again.”

What’s amazing, he said, is how long humans can live, despite this constant battle. “Say you’ve got lemon meringue pie. It’s good the first day, not so good the second day, and after a week … and that’s just a pie,” Clarke explained. “Now imagine a machine as complicated as us lasting 80, 90, 100 years. It’s an active fight, because we have this spontaneous degradation that’s always happening. And it’s because of these active biological processes that are basically turning back aging.”

It’s fitting that Clarke would refer to the human body as a machine, since he’s had an interest in machines since he was a child. He remembered getting gifts from his parents, such as a bicycle and a camera, and taking them completely apart. Never mind that he could never get them back together again — the lesson he learned was that life is a big challenge. What puts us together that makes us work?

“I have a message,” Clarke said, smiling. “You know when you get out of a Broadway show, and you’re whistling the tune from the overture? This is the tune that I want the audience to whistle: that in aging, it’s basically the forces of chemistry that are degrading us, and the forces of biology that are building us up. And the crucial thing is, we can’t stop the chemistry.

“How do we enhance those biological reactions that build us back up? How does understanding those processes help us to maintain a health span? That’s the message that I hope will be there.”

From Wendy Soderburg, UCLA Today

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