The holy grail of medical science has always been solving the mystery of living longer and healthier lives. Now scientists believe the secret to longevity may very well be found in the genes of bowhead whales.
What makes this animal so special? These 60-foot aquatic mammals appear to be pushing the limits of aging, in mammals at least, by living as long as 200 years. The mystery comes down to how they manage to conduct selective cell repairs and avoid all those nasty, lethal diseases that cut down human lives.
A new UK based study released by the journal Cell Reports this week may shed some light on this mystery by unveiling for the first time the whale’s complete genome.
Bowheads, which can weigh anywhere from 50 to 100 tons, have been found with old harpoon points embedded in their blubber that have helped age them as living as long as two centuries. The species is naturally found in the Arctic region, is only second in size to the blue whale, and has a population estimated at 10,000.
The only other large mammals that come close in terms of longevity are elephants in captivity and humans, at 70 to 120 years. On the other end of the longevity scale, mice live only about 4 years. Their longevity is linked to specific proteins that help stop in its tracks specific age-related diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
By analyzing the DNA sequences of the bowhead and comparing them to equivalent molecular segments taken from samples of other whale species, like the smaller Minke and Orca whales, the researchers were able to zero in on key genes that might be directly linked to aging in the animals. Specifically, the DNA fragments they focused on appear to control things like cancer and genetic repairs.
While as many as 30 percent of humans suffer from cancer, these whales for some unknown reason tend have much lower rates of these diseases. Bowheads seem to have a natural healing process that prevents tumours from getting a foothold in their bodies and start growing out of control.
One specific gene mutation the team found associated with cell growth and repair may directly lead to slowing the aging process. And another new-found gene may be involved in reversing cell damage caused by stress. Both of these discoveries point to a set of genetic mechanisms these animals have in their arsenal that keeps them youthful.
Biologists in the past have speculated that the freezing temperatures in the arctic may have also led bowheads to have a slower metabolism to survive the extreme environments, and this new study has revealed it may have triggered special genetic adaptions in these whales.
Scientists hope these new cellular findings will give them a starting point to determining which genes play a crucial role in extreme longevity and resistance to diseases.
The medical team hopes to take their research to the next level by creating an artificial strain of mice that have bowhead whale genes in their DNA. This will allow them to focus in on the specific genes involved in repairs leading to a long life.
But their ultimate goal is to investigate the biological mechanisms and pathways that could help us understand what may protect them from diseases.
If all goes well, the team hopes to then possibly apply this knowledge to help preserve human life.