Over the course of a lifetime the human body undergoes various developments at various timescales. There are daily processes such as digestion and sleep, but also decadal processes by which infants mature into adults – undergoing puberty somewhere along the way – and gradually grow old. Biologists have fruitfully studied the mechanisms behind these daily, monthly and yearly sorts of developments, but the factors that actually determine when and how quickly they occur are much less certain.

Wired’s Danger Room featured a recently announced effort by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to investigate those temporal determinants. The Wired blog post explains the agency’s ‘Biochronicity’ project:

There’s a hidden clock that underlies every process of every living thing — from when our cells start dividing to how quickly we age. Researchers at Darpa, the Pentagon’s extreme science agency, believes they can find it, using a mash-up of biology, code-cracking, mathematics and computer science.

…to uncover the calculus within the genome, it might take some looking beyond the genome. Genes may contribute a few elements to the inner clock, but they interact within a larger scaffolding of cell processes and environmental factors. Furthermore, all those interactions may not be subject to any top-down control of a particular actor. Darpa’s “master regulator” may turn out to be more of an interlocking network of systems.

So it appears that the best way to learn about the long-term biological development of a human may be to study a plethora of individual timing mechanisms and the factors that influence them. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency hopes to use such information to predict the course of processes such as cell cycles and aging. The trick, perhaps, will be to come full circle and use knowledge of numerous, distinct yet interdependent mechanisms to paint a holistic and coherent portrait of yearly, decadal or even lifetime development. So it goes with long-term thinking in general. The big picture is composed of – and derived from – small pixels.

The success of this research could have profound implications for long-term thinking in society. Michael West, a scientist who has been studying human aging and cell mortality since the early 1990s, spoke at The Long Now Foundation’s SALT series in 02004 about “The Prospects of Human Life Extension,” pointing out that an average life-span of 100 years or more would likely change the way that people think about time and how they plan for the future. It was none too many generations ago when few humans lived beyond their forties.

Danger Room writers Noah Shachtman and Lena Groeger are excited and encouraged about the scope of the project.

Biochronicity is a return to the fundamentals, the building blocks of science. Of course, this mission to uncover how time is encoded in our biology will begin with tiny steps. But now could be the perfect time to start.

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The Long Now Foundation is a nonprofit established in 01996 to foster long-term thinking. Our work encourages imagination at the timescale of civilization — the next and last 10,000 years — a timespan we call the long now.

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