Venkatraman “Venki” Ramakrishnan was born in Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu. After completing his undergraduate studies from Maharaj Sayaji Rao University in Vadodara, Ramakrishnan moved to the US in 1971 for his PhD degree in physics from Ohio University. A structural biologist by profession, he shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Thomas A Steitz and Ada Yonath for research on the structure and function of ribosomes. In 2010, he was awarded the Padma Vibhushan by the Indian government.

In his latest book Why We Die: The New Science of Ageing and the Quest for Immortality, published by Hachette India/Hodder & Stoughton, Ramakrishnan takes the reader on a riveting journey to the frontiers of biology. He explains the latest scientific understanding of exactly why we age and how we might prevent it. He examines cutting-edge efforts to extend lifespans by altering our natural biology, and raises profound questions. Might death serve a necessary biological purpose? As science advances, what will it mean for us all if people start living longer? And how can we increase our chances of living long, healthy and fulfilled lives?

In an email conversation with Scroll, the molecular biologist spoke about what ageing and death mean scientifically, if immortality is desirable, and the existential questions that made him write the book.

What is death? How is it defined today? How has the definition/perception of death changed since the advent of modern science?
Death occurs at many levels from the cellular all the way to the whole organism. For example, millions of cells in us die all the time, and some of that is actually a necessary process of biology, yet we don’t even notice it. On the other end, when we die, most of our cells are still alive and entire organs can be donated, eg to transplant recipients. So what we usually mean by death is our inability to function as a coherent whole individual. Most states today define death to be brain death, which involves sustained and irreversible loss of critical brain function.

You mention that there must be something in each of us that doesn’t die. What is this thing?
Each of us has descended from germ cells from our parents, who were descended from germ cells form theirs and so on all the way to the beginning of life. So in some sense, we represent a continuous existence of life that has existed for several billion years.

What is ageing? What do we know about it now that we didn’t know before?
Ageing is the gradual accumulation of damage to our molecules, cells and tissues over time, causing them to be dysfunctional. Although we have known about ageing for most of our history as humans, we did not know the underlying causes. In the last few decades, biologists have identified several key hallmarks such as DNA damage, telomere loss, genome instability, mitochondrial damage, stem cell depletion, etc. which are associated with ageing. Scientists are beginning to understand the mechanisms of each of these, which in turn is leading to efforts to tackle some of these causes of ageing.

Can the biological clock be reset? What are the various ways in which it is happening already?
In some sense, the biological clock is reset every generation when a new child is born. A child is born at age zero: for example, a child born to a 40-year-old woman is not 20 years older than one born to a 20-year-old woman. Similarly, many animals cloned from the cells of an adult animal go on to live normal lifespans, suggesting that in some sense they have reset the clock compared to the cell they began with. Scientists are trying to see if they can reprogram cells to reverse their development to an earlier stage. This would be like reversing the clock somewhat.

What are the various forms in which the quest for immortality is being conducted?
We have a natural maximum lifespan of about 110-120 years. Only one person on record has exceeded 120 years, a Frenchwoman named Jeanne Calment who died at the age of 122. Some scientists are wondering whether slowing down some of the fundamental causes of ageing will allow humans to routinely live past 120 years. I am sceptical that this will happen anytime soon.

Should we live forever? Do you personally believe immortality is a good thing, both for the individual in question and for the planet?
I think that living forever is a mirage. Firstly, even if scientists are able to address some of the causes of ageing, these measures will never be perfect and eventually we will age. However, even apart from ageing, there are numerous causes of death, for example, diseases including pandemics, environmental disasters, famine, wars, accidents, etc. So true immortality is not really achievable. I also think people living very long lives could result in a boring and stagnant society. I believe that knowing we are mortal gives us a sense of purpose and the drive to get something accomplished while we are alive.

And finally, what made you write this book? What do you want us to take away from it?
Ageing and death are big existential questions that humans have wondered about throughout our history, but it is only in the last few decades that biologists have made progress with understanding some of its fundamental causes. At the same time, because we are all naturally anxious about old age and death, there is a huge amount of hype, along with efforts to monetise findings, sometimes in dubious ways. As someone without any personal stake in the area, I thought it would be good to take a hard look at the science and see what we know and what the prospects are. What I hope is that it satisfies the reader’s sense of curiosity about one of life’s mysteries, but also gives them the tools to understand and interpret new developments in the field. Without being prescriptive, a knowledge of the biology of ageing should also help them make their own decisions about how to live a healthy life.

Why We Die: The New Science of Ageing and the Quest for Immortality, published by Hachette India/Hodder & Stoughton.