Coleen T. Murphy

James A. Elkins Jr. Professor in the Life Sciences. Professor of Molecular Biology and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics
Director, Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics. Director of Paul F. Glenn Laboratories for Aging Research
Office Phone
Icahn Laboratory, 148


Molecular mechanisms of aging


My lab is focused on the process of aging, which remains one of the fundamental mysteries of biology. While aging may appear to be simply an unfortunate consequence of living, recent genetic breakthroughs suggest that aging is a regulated process, rather than the result of cumulative cellular damage. Many chronic and degenerative disorders, such as diabetes, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases develop in an age-related manner. Because more than 20% of U.S. citizens will be over the age of 65 by the year 2050, there is a growing need to better understand the mechanisms involved in aging and age-associated diseases.

The emergence of model systems to study aging and the development of whole-genome approaches is providing an unprecedented glimpse into the processes underlying aging. Our understanding of aging at the molecular level will progress from identifying these global regulators, to defining the genes that they control, to describing the biochemical events that carry out the business of keeping an organism's cells alive. The goal of my lab is to enrich our understanding of the molecular basis of aging process by first identifying the genes that are controlled by these global regulators and then elucidating the cell biological and biochemical mechanisms used by these genes to affect lifespan.

A model for aging: C. elegans

  • We have chosen the nematode C. elegans as our model system of aging. For our purposes C. elegans is ideal because lives two-three weeks, making lifespan experiments feasible, and during this time it exhibits many obvious phenotypes of aging, such as slowed motility and tissue deterioration. Importantly, C. elegans mutants with dramatically extended longevity have been identified; the genetic dissection of the pathways contributing to these mutants' longevity can shed light on the mechanisms of aging. The genes that regulate lifespan are conserved from worms to mammals, making our findings relevant for humans, as well.

Transcriptional analysis of longevity pathways

The initial work in my lab will use microarray techniques to identify transcriptional targets of longevity pathways. For this purpose, we have built both PCR product arrays and 60-mer oligo arrays for the almost 20,000 open reading frames in C. elegans. My previous work identified the genes that act downstream of the C. elegans insulin receptor/FOXO transcription factor pathway, and found that this pathway is likely to be regulated through a feed-forward mechanism; now we would like to determine when the target genes are expressed and distinguish direct from indirect targets. Because downregulation of the insulin receptor pathway is only one of the mechanisms that increase the longevity of C. elegans, we will also use microarrays and genomic analysis to discover transcriptional targets that are shared between multiple longevity pathways.

Functional analysis of candidate lifespan genes

Once the targets have been identified, we can use the extremely tractable C. elegans experimental system to test these genes for their roles in longevity. For example, C. elegans is susceptible to RNA interference by bacterial feeding, allowing us to quickly knock down gene activity and test the requirement for that gene in lifespan extension. Now that we know which genes act downstream of the insulin receptor/FOXO pathway to affect lifespan, we would like to identify the sites of action of these genes in the worm. Using fluorescent gene fusions, we can identify the localization and time of expression of specific proteins in the animal to better understand the gene's organismal role. Finally, in vitro studies will be carried out on the most interesting candidate genes to understand their biochemical functions.

Additionally, my lab will carry out genetic screens to identify novel genes that are critical to aging-related processes. The combination of a classic genetic system that recapitulates aging in higher organisms with powerful genomic approaches and fast functional analysis should help us to elucidate the multigenic mechanisms involved in aging.

Honors & Awards


  • HHMI Faculty Scholar, Howard Hughes Medical Institute


  • Pioneer Award, National Institutes of Health


  • Innovation Award, Department of Molecular Biology, Princeton University


  • Glenn Foundation for Medical Research Award, Glenn Foundation for Medical Research

Selected Publications