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January 27, 2015

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Scientists study whale that lives 200 years for clues

Jan. 5, 2015
Courtesy of Cell Press
and World Science staff

A whale that can live over 200 years with lit­tle ev­i­dence of age-re­lat­ed dis­ease may pro­vide un­tapped in­sights in­to how to live a long and healthy life, bi­ol­o­gists say. 

In the Jan. 6 is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Cell Re­ports, sci­en­tists pre­s­ent the bow­head whale’s com­plete ge­nome and iden­ti­fy what they say are key dif­fer­ences with oth­er mam­mals. 

A bowhead pokes its head out of the water. (Courtesy Cell Press)


Changes in bow­head genes re­lat­ed to cell di­vi­sion, DNA re­pair, can­cer, and ag­ing may have helped in­crease its longe­vity and can­cer re­sist­ance, ac­cord­ing to the re­search­ers.

“Our un­der­stand­ing of spe­cies’ dif­fer­ences in longe­vity is very poor, and thus our find­ings pro­vide nov­el can­di­date genes for fu­ture stud­ies,” said the study’s sen­ior au­thor, João Pe­dro de Ma­g­a­l­hães of the Uni­vers­ity of Liv­er­pool in the UK. 

“My view is that spe­cies evolved dif­fer­ent ‘tricks’ to have a long­er life­span, and by disco­vering the ‘tricks’ used by the bow­head we may be able to apply those find­ings to hu­mans in or­der to fight age-re­lat­ed dis­eases.” 

Al­so, he added, large whales with over 1,000 times more cells than hu­mans don’t seem to have high­er can­cer risk, sug­gest­ing the whales have nat­u­ral mech­a­nisms that help sup­press can­cer.

Ma­g­a­l­hães and his team plan to breed mice with var­i­ous bow­head genes in hopes of de­ter­min­ing the im­por­tance of dif­fer­ent genes for longe­vity and re­sist­ance to dis­eases. They al­so note that be­cause the bow­head’s ge­nome is the first among large whales to be de­cod­ed, the new in­forma­t­ion may help re­veal phys­i­o­logical adapta­t­ions re­lat­ed to large size.


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A whale that can live over 200 years with little evidence of age-related disease may provide untapped insights into how to live a long and healthy life, biologists say. In the Jan. 6 issue of the research journal Cell Reports, scientists present the bowhead whale’s complete genome and identify what they say are key differences compared to other mammals. Changes in bowhead genes related to cell division, DNA repair, cancer, and aging may have helped increase its longevity and cancer resistance, according to the researchers. “Our understanding of species’ differences in longevity is very poor, and thus our findings provide novel candidate genes for future studies,” said the study’s senior author, João Pedro de Magalhães of the University of Liverpool in the UK. “My view is that species evolved different ‘tricks’ to have a longer lifespan, and by discovering the ‘tricks’ used by the bowhead we may be able to apply those findings to humans in order to fight age-related diseases.” Also, he added, large whales with over 1,000 times more cells than humans don’t seem to have higher cancer risk, suggesting the have natural mechanisms that can suppress cancer more effectively than those of other animals. Magalhães and his team plan to breed mice with various bowhead genes in hopes of determining the importance of different genes for longevity and resistance to diseases. They also note that because the bowhead’s genome is the first among large whales to be decoded, the new information may help reveal physiological adaptations related to size.