Current perspectives on the cellular and molecular features of epigenetic ageing

Kenneth Raj*, Steve Horvath

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)


It has been noted for quite some time that DNA methylation levels decline with age. The significance of this change remained unknown until it became possible to measure methylation status of specific sites on the DNA. It was observed that while the methylation of some sites does indeed decrease with age, that of others increase or remain unchanged. The application of machine learning methods to these quantitative changes in multiple sites, allowed the generation of a highly accurate estimator of age, called the epigenetic clock. The application of this clock on large human epidemiological data sets revealed that discordance between the predicted (epigenetic age) and chronological age is associated with many age-related pathologies, particularly when the former is greater than the latter. The epigenetic clock clearly captures to some degree, biological features that accompany the ageing process. Despite the ever-increasing scope of pathologies that are found to be associated with accelerated epigenetic ageing, the basic principles that underlie the ticking of the clock remain elusive. Here, we describe the known molecular and cellular attributes of the clock and consider their properties, and proffer opinions as to how they may be connected and what might be the underlying mechanism. Emerging from these considerations is the inescapable view that epigenetic ageing begins from very early moments after the embryonic stem cell stage and continues un-interrupted through the entire life-course. This appears to be a consequence of processes that are necessary for the development of the organism from conception and to maintain it thereafter through homeostasis. Hence, while the speed of ageing can, and is affected by external factors, the essence of the ageing process itself is an integral part of, and the consequence of the development of life. Impact statement: The field of epigenetic ageing is relatively new, and the speed of its expansion presents a challenge in keeping abreast with new discoveries and their implications. Several reviews have already addressed the great number of pathologies, health conditions, life-style, and external stressors that are associated with changes to the rate of epigenetic ageing. While these associations highlight and affirm the ability of epigenetic clock to capture biologically meaningful changes associated with age, they do not inform us about the underlying mechanisms. In this very early period since the development of the clock, there have been rather limited experimental research that are aimed at uncovering the mechanism. Hence, the perspective that we proffer is derived from available but nevertheless limited lines of evidence that together provide a seemingly coherent narrative that can be tested. This, we believe would be helpful towards uncovering the workings of the epigenetic clock.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1532-1542
Number of pages11
JournalExperimental Biology and Medicine
Issue number17
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 by the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine.


  • DNA methylation
  • Epigenetics
  • ageing


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