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10 facts about Aubrey de Grey

by Harriet Easton Published on 4th Sep 2015

by Harriet Easton Published on 4th September 2015

1. Childhood curiosity and his wife influenced his interest in aging

Even before he was old enough to start growing a beard, de Grey was baffled as to why others around him willingly accept ageing as an unfortunate, yet inevitable, process. He couldn’t understand why no one was trying to fix it. However, as an adult, his attention was initially diverted towards computer science, which he studied at university before landing a job as a software engineer. It was only when he met and married a biology professor, Adelaide Carpenter, that his interest in ageing was reawakened.  

Interview with the Observer from 2007

2. He taught himself biology

Inspired by dinner table conversations with his wife, in 1995, de Grey began to teach himself biology by reading textbooks or academic journals and attending conferences on the subject of gerontology. After just two months of observing the subject, he wrote a groundbreaking paper about the accumulation of mutations in the mitochondria, which challenged the widely held, yet experimentally unproven, belief that these mutations were to blame for cellular decay. His paper helped far more experienced gerontological researchers to realise that the reason why they had been struggling to produce experimental evidence to support this popular theory is because it was, in fact, untrue. 

3. He hasn’t done any lab work, yet still has a PhD.  

 In spite of his ‘mad scientist’ appearance, de Grey doesn’t spend his days tinkering with test tubes in a laboratory. On the contrary, he has never done any lab work. However, such was the quality of his well-reasoned theories, that the University of Cambridge chose to award him a PhD in biology in 2000. 

4. Like all great scientists, he has had a ‘Eureka!’ moment.

This occurred in the early hours of the morning in a hotel room in California in 2000, when he has struggling to sleep due to jet lag. As he told The Observer,  he “suddenly had the realisation that if you focus on fixing the damage rather than on pre-empting the damage, you've got a much more feasible approach.” “We are machines, and ageing is the wearing out of a machine, the accumulation of damage to a machine, and hence potentially fixable.”

5. He has a ‘Seven Deadly Things’ theory 

During his moment of jet-lag-induced inspiration, de Grey identified seven categories, into which all of the various molecular and cellular changes in the body that cause damage can be placed, namely: Junk – Inside Cells Junk – Outside Cells Cells – Too Few Cells – Too Many Mutations – Chromosomes Mutations – Mitochondria Protein Crosslinks In order to cure all age-related diseases, scientists will need to figure out how to repair the damage done by each one of these seven deadly things. This has become the goal of the SENS Research Foundation - a non-profit organisation, co-founded by de Grey, which was set up in 2009.

6. He’s not aiming for immortality

In an interview in 2013, de Grey expressed his frustrations about the media’s relentless determination to portray him as ‘the prophet of immortality’. Headlines such as ‘Immortality’ and ‘Who wants to live forever?’ are enough to make his beard bristle. He was keen to state: “I don’t work on longevity. I work on health.” Furthermore, he described the work of the SENS foundation as ‘the development of rejuvenation biotechnologies’ - medicines for the future which will slow down and eventually reverse the process of ageing.  

 7. He’s on a mission to secure more funding for life extending research

Over the years, de Grey has managed to persuade many people to donate money to gerontological research. One of the most high profile investors was the billionaire entrepreneur and PayPal Co-Founder Peter Thiel. Since the two met in 2004, Thiel has donated a total of $3.5 million to de Grey's other non-profit organisation - the Methuselah Foundation. Not wishing to be outdone, when de Grey inherited £11 million from his artist mother when she died in 2011, he chose to invest the majority of this windfall (£9 million) in the SENS Foundation’s research.

8. He has an unusual way of warding off criticism

In 2005, the editor of the MIT Technology Review, Jason Pontin, penned a damning personal attack on de Grey: “He dresses like a shabby graduate student and affects Rip Van Winkle's beard; he has no children; he has few interests outside the science of biogerontology; he drinks too much beer.”  

When asked by outraged readers to provide a reason for the attack, Pontin claimed that he simply repeating remarks made by respected biologists, who had not yet dared to criticise de Grey in public.

By way of an apology, Pontin agreed to set up a prize fund in conjunction with de Grey - offering $20,000 to any molecular biologist who was able to submit 'an intellectually serious argument about why the work undertaken by SENS is so wrong and thus unworthy of learned debate'. So far, no one has been awarded such a prize.

9. He has an answer for everything

De Grey has thought of comebacks to all of the major objections to the concept of radical life extension. Overpopulation will not become an issue since people will stop having children or, failing that, there is always the option of developing colonies on the moon and Mars. He believes that, if we knew that we were going to live for longer, we would be more motivated to find solutions to the problem of shortages in food, water and space. And as far as the morality of healthy life extension is concerned, how can something which will save hundreds of thousands of lives be deemed immoral? 

10. And finally, his beard has its own Facebook group

Arguably his facial hair has attracted almost as much attention as his academic research. In interviews, de Grey has repeatedly attributed the wiry mane sprouting from his chin to the fact that his wife ‘is a beard girl’. And, at the time of writing, it seems that 128 other people agree with his wife’s opinion: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Aubrey-de-Greys-beard/154902674539712