A computational approach to studying ageing at the individual level


The ageing process is actively regulated throughout an organism’s life, but studying the rate of ageing in individuals is difficult with conventional methods. Consequently, ageing studies typically make biological inference based on population mortality rates, which often do not accurately reflect the probabilities of death at the individual level. To study the relationship between individual and population mortality rates, we integrated in vivo switch experiments with in silico stochastic simulations to elucidate how carefully designed experiments allow key aspects of individual ageing to be deduced from group mortality measurements. As our case study, we used the recent report demonstrating that pheromones of the opposite sex decrease lifespan in Drosophila melanogaster by reversibly increasing population mortality rates. We showed that the population mortality reversal following pheromone removal was almost surely occurring in individuals, albeit more slowly than suggested by population measures. Furthermore, heterogeneity among individuals due to the inherent stochasticity of behavioural interactions skewed population mortality rates in middle-age away from the individual-level trajectories of which they are comprised. This article exemplifies how computational models function as important predictive tools for designing wet-laboratory experiments to use population mortality rates to understand how genetic and environmental manipulations affect ageing in the individual.