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Pioneers in Prevention, Part IV: Bruce Ames, PhD

Dr. Ames is a Professor Emeritus of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of California, Berkeley and most recently was a Senior Scientist at Childrens Hospital Oakland Research Institute (CHORI), and director of their Nutrition & Metabolism Center.

He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and he was on their Commission on Life Sciences. He was a member of the board of directors of the National Cancer Institute, the National Cancer Advisory Board, from 1976 to 1982. He was the recipient of the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation Prize (1983), the Tyler Environmental Prize (1985), the Gold Medal Award of the American Institute of Chemists (1991), the Glenn Foundation Award of the Gerontological Society of America (1992), the Lovelace Institutes Award for Excellence in Environmental Health Research (1995), the Honda Prize of the Honda Foundation, Japan (1996), the Japan Prize, (1997), the Kehoe Award, American College of Occupational and Environ. Med. (1997), the Medal of the City of Paris (1998), the U.S. National Medal of Science (1998), The Linus Pauling Institute Prize for Health Research (2001), and the American Society for Microbiology Lifetime Achievement Award (2001) [among many others]. His over 555 publications have resulted in his being among the few hundred most-cited scientists (in all fields).

I have known of Bruce’s work for most of my scientific career but I have only known him for the last fifteen or so years.

His highly cited and widely used breakthrough in the early 1970’s was the development of the “Ames Test”. This inexpensive and convenient assay (using the bacterium Salmonella typhimurium) for mutagens has been extraordinarily useful in screening for possible carcinogens, and in identifying them in commercial products. He then utilized that assay to provoke a scientific debate about the thousands of hypothetical risks posed by everyday life and the exogenous chemicals we all encounter --- turning that discussion into an evaluation of relative risks of cancer, and focusing attention on some of the major and very real risks [1].

By the early 2000s, Bruce was developing a new and exciting theory that he called his “Triage Theory” [2,3]. This theory, which is becoming much more widely accepted in the decade and a half since he originally proposed it, goes as follows: As a result of recurrent shortages of vitamins and minerals during evolution as human beings, a strategic rationing response to moderate shortages was favored by evolution, such that scarce vitamins and minerals are preferentially retained by vitamin-dependent and mineral-dependent proteins essential for short-term survival and reproduction. However, proteins required for long-term health, which he calls "longevity proteins" (by-and-large they defend against the diseases associated with aging), are starved for the vitamins and minerals which they require, and therefore disabled [4]. Critically, since the damage from moderate deficiency is insidious, its importance for long-term health is not clinically apparent.

Ames’ Triage Theory was particularly inspiring and heartening to me as I was slowly putting together my ideas about phytochemicals and healthspan.

Bruce recently published a paper called “Musings in the Twilight of My Career” that offers a poignant and somewhat detailed overview of some of the advances in understanding nutrition and metabolism which Bruce has brought to the table over his very long and productive career [5].

References (all are clickable links to pdfs)

  1. Ames, B. N., Profet, M. and Gold, L. S. (1990) Dietary Pesticides (99.99% All Natural). Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 87: 7777-7781.

  2. Ames, B (2006) Low micronutrient intake may accelerate the degenerative diseases of aging through allocation of scarce micronutrients by triage. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., U.S.A., 103: 17589-94.

  3. Ames BN, McCann JC, Stampfer MJ, Willett WC (2007) Letter to the Editor: Evidence-based decision making on micronutrients and chronic disease: long-term randomized controlled trails are not enough. Amer J Clin Nutr 86: 522-3.

  4. B.N. Ames (2018) Prolonging healthy aging: longevity vitamins and proteins. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A., 115 (43): 10836-10844.

  5. Ames BN. Musings in the twilight of my career. (2022) Free Radic Biol Med. 178: 219-225. doi: 10.1016/j.freeradbiomed.2021.11.038.

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