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What can we learn about longevity from the bowhead whale?


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What can we learn about longevity from the bowhead whale?

by Published on 16th Jun 2015

by Published on 16th June 2015

Results from a study conducted by scientists at the University of Liverpool suggest that the genes of the bowhead whale may just hold the clue to longevity. Here, Lena Carlson looks at why this robust sea animal is drawing such attention from scientists looking to increase healthy human lifespan.

What makes the bowhead whale special?

The Bowhead Whale is innately fascinating. Not only can it grow up to an extraordinary 20m in length, weighing an average of 75-100 tonnes, but it has also been estimated to live to over 200 years of age, making it the longest-lived mammal in existence. It has also proven to be exceptionally disease-resistant, a fact that scientists are particularly interested in. The bowhead has about 1000 times as many cells as humans, yet the whale’s probability of developing cancer and other age-related diseases is significantly lower than ours. 

Curious to learn more about this species’ incredible ageing prevention mechanisms, a team of researchers from the Integrative Genomics of Ageing Group at the University of Liverpool sequenced and analysed the bowhead whale’s genome for the first time. They also compared the resulting sequence to other whales - including that of the Minke and Orca, to identify genetic mutations specific to the Bowhead. 

Pedro de Magalhães, geneticist and lead author of the study: ‘Insights into the Evolution of the Bowhead Whale Genome,’ recently published in Cell Reports, believes that “different species evolved different ‘tricks’ to have a long lifespan, and by discovering those used by the bowhead whale we may be able to apply these findings to humans in order to fight age-related diseases.”

What have scientists discovered?

Specifically, the study identified as many as 80 gene mutations in the bowhead whale’s DNA, associated with DNA repair and cell cycle regulation, that may be responsible for minimising the chance of cancer and other diseases. Researchers also discovered that whale cells have a much lower metabolic rate than those of smaller mammals, which is a possible cause the whale’s endurance. 

This suggests that, in order to live so long, the bowhead whale possesses natural preventative mechanisms against an array of age related diseases including cancer, immunosenescence, and neurodegenerative, cardiovascular and metabolic disease. 

So what does this mean for us?

Scientists may now be able to apply the findings from the whale genome study to improve human health and preserve human life. Magalhães explains that “DNA damage and mutation are important for cancer. So when we find genes related to DNA repair and damage responses, we think that this could be involved in longevity and disease resistance.” Thus the bowhead genes gives scientists a “promising lead” in the search for an anti-aging mechanism. 
With funding and support from the wider community, the genome sequences will allow scientists to study molecular processes and identify maintenance mechanisms that help preserve life, avoid entropy and repair molecular damage. The findings from the study also provide novel candidate genes for future studies that could even lead to new drug therapies. 

What’s next?

Magalhães and his team of researchers now hope to use this information to create mice with bowhead whale genes. Magalhães believes that this "would be ideal to determine if these genes emerging from the bowhead genome can protect against age-related diseases or even promote longevity".
Whilst more research certainly needs to take place, this is a clear breakthrough for the scientific community and the data from the bowhead whale study provides key information for future studies that may play a greater role in the discovery of the key to exceptional longevity and disease resistance.
Learn more about the project here: