Computational Analysis of Lifespan Experiment Reproducibility

Independent reproducibility is essential to the generation of scientific knowledge. Optimizing experimental protocols to ensure reproducibility is an important aspect of scientific work. Genetic or pharmacological lifespan extensions are generally small compared to the inherent variability in mean lifespan even in isogenic populations housed under identical conditions. This variability makes reproducible detection of small but real effects experimentally challenging. In this study, we aimed to determine the reproducibility of C. elegans lifespan measurements under ideal conditions, in the absence of methodological errors or environmental or genetic background influences. To accomplish this, we generated a parametric model of C. elegans lifespan based on data collected from 5,026 wild-type N2 animals. We use this model to predict how different experimental practices, effect sizes, number of animals, and how different ‘shapes’ of survival curves affect the ability to reproduce real longevity effects. We find that the chances of reproducing real but small effects are exceedingly low and would require substantially more animals than are commonly used. Our results indicate that many lifespan studies are underpowered to detect reported changes and that, as a consequence, stochastic variation alone can account for many failures to reproduce longevity results. As a remedy, we provide power of detection tables that can be used as guidelines to plan experiments with statistical power to reliably detect real changes in lifespan and limit spurious false positive results. These considerations will improve best-practices in designing lifespan experiment to increase reproducibility.