At a laboratory outside San Francisco, money from the founders of Google maintains a large number of naked mole rats. The hairless rodents require exacting, expensive conditions to thrive: they live in coöperative colonies like ants, led by a queen rat. But what is truly extraordinary is that they can live about 30 years—10 times longer than a mouse.
The rodents belong to Calico Labs, short for the California Life Company. In 2013, the cofounder of Google, Larry Page, announced that his company would form Calico and fund it lavishly to carry out a long-term project, trying to sort out the causes of aging and do something about them. The company’s mission: to build a Bell Labs of aging research. It hoped to extend the human life span by coming up with a breakthrough as important, and as useful to humanity, as the transistor has been.
There are reasons to think aging can be slowed in fundamental ways. Among Calico’s first hires was Cynthia Kenyon, now its vice president of aging research, who 20 years ago showed that altering a single DNA letter in a laboratory roundworm made it live six weeks instead of three. There is something hair-raising about Kenyon’s videos of old, should-be-dead worms wriggling vigorously across a petri dish.
So Google’s founders created an academic-biotech hybrid they call an R&D company to follow up on such clues, providing nearly unlimited funding to a group of top researchers. Calico has hired stars like artificial-intelligence specialist Daphne Koller. With equal contributions from Google’s parent company, Alphabet, and the drug company AbbVie, it has $1.5 billion in the bank. But despite the hype around its launch--Time magazine asked, “Can Google Solve Death?”—Calico has remained a riddle, a super-secretive company that three years in hasn’t published anything of note, rebuffs journalists, and asks visiting scientists to sign nondisclosure agreements.
In fact, Calico has other researchers “a little miffed,” says Felipe Sierra, director of the division of aging biology at the National Institute on Aging. “We want to know what they are doing so we can focus on other things, or collaborate. They are a research company, so what are they researching?”