UCL Division of Biosciences

Prof David Gems

Prof David Gems

Professor of Biogerontology

Genetics, Evolution & Environment

Div of Biosciences

Joined UCL
7th Feb 1997

Research summary

Understanding the biology of ageing and age-related disease using a nematode model

While developmental genetics has been an area of intensive study for many years, investigation of the role of genes in determining longevity and ageing only began more recently. An tractable model organism in which to study ageing is the free-living nematode Caenorhabditis elegans. This species has well-developed genetics, its 97,000,000 base pair genome is fully sequenced, and its life span is a mere 2-3 weeks. Most importantly, numerous mutations have been identified in C. elegans which alter the rate of ageing, with some mutants living more than ten times as long as wild-type worms. It is hoped that by understanding ageing in a simple animal like C. elegans it will be possible to unravel the mystery of human ageing, which is the main cause of a wide range of diseases, from cardiovascular disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, to Alzheimer's disease and cancer. A major focus of current work in my laboratory is understanding how insulin/IGF-1 signaling, which affects aging rate in many species, promotes aging-related disease, and identifying the broad principles of senescent pathophysiology that underlie the aging process, particularly the role of programmatic mechanisms. Other interests include sex differences in the biology of ageing, evolutionary conservation of mechanisms of ageing, and bioethical implications of ageing research. 

Teaching summary

Courses lectured on

2005- Course Organizer - Biology of Ageing (BIOL0022). The number of students taking this popular course rose from 35 in 2005 to a recent maximum of 133. Over 1,000 students have taken the course. 

2018- Contributor to course development - Diseases of Ageing (BIOL0027).

2017- Mitochondrial Biology, Bioenergetics and Metabolism in Human Disease(CELL0015). The role of mitochondria in ageing. 

2015- Cellular Pathology (INIM3004). Understanding senescence as a cause of diseases of ageing.

2015- CPD Mammalian Cell Biology. Cellular senescence and cancer.

2012- Advanced Molecular Biology (BIOC0030). Functional genomic approaches to the study of ageing.

2012- Development, Genetics and Cancer (MBBS_GDC). Understanding ageing as a route to understanding etiologies of late life disease.

2011-2017 General Biochemistry of Health (BIOC2008). Introduction to the biology of ageing.

2007- Biology of Development (BIOL0013). Development and ageing.

2006- Genetic Mechanisms (Prenatal Genetics and Fetal Medicine MSc). Ageing, cellular senescence and late life disease.

2014,16,18,20 - Introduction to Genetics (BIOL1005). Introduction to the genetics of ageing.

Initiatives to Integrate Research and Teaching

I am a strong advocate of the view that a great strength of science teaching at UCL is that it is a research-led university, and for the close integration of research and teaching. To this end, I have worked to use the research funding and resources at my disposal to engage students in active, useful scientific research. 

     For example of the 85 B.Sc., M.Sci. and M.Res. students that have undertaken research projects with me, 31 are or are expected to be authors on papers in peer reviewed journals, or 25/47 (53%) since 2010.

     I am currently helping to support development of a student-run programme, The Heathspan Programme, which organises voluntary work for undergraduates to allow them to get research experience. At the time of writing 12 are engaged in the lab, and a number of them are already authors on upcoming publications. 


University of Glasgow
Doctorate, Doctor of Philosophy | 1990
University of Sussex
First Degree, Bachelor of Science | 1983


I am a Professor of Biogerontology (the scientific study of the biology of ageing) at the UCL Institute of Healthy Ageing (IHA), where I am Research Director. I graduated from Sussex University and then conducted research at Glasgow University, Imperial College, and the University of Missouri-Columbia USA, where in 1993 I began working on the biology of ageing in C. elegans with Prof. Don Riddle. I set up my own research group at UCL in 1997 with the support of a fellowship from the Royal Society. Much of my work uses the nematode worm C. elegans to understand the fundamental mechanisms that cause the ageing process, including late-life disease. I have also contributed to studies of aging in other nematodes, Drosophila, the mouse and Pacific salmon, and penned articles on the ethics of ageing research. I am a founder member of the IHA, and have contributed to over 160 articles, mostly on ageing. 


 Ageing is now the main cause of serious illness worldwide, yet its underlying biology remains poorly understood. Research using animal models has shown that it is possible to intervene in ageing and slow it down, thereby increasing late-life health and extending lifespan. Critical now is to develop an understanding in terms of broad principles of the causes of aging, and the possibility of doing this is now within reach. It is envisaged that this work will contribute to the future development of preventative approaches to diseases of human ageing, such as cardiovascular disease, dementia, cancer and many others, thereby achieving major gains in terms of improved late-life health and well being.