Bowhead whales may unlock the secrets to a long, healthy life

Map of giant cetacean’s genome could explain its 200-year lifespan

bowhead whale

SENIOR CETACEANS  The bowhead whale is the first large whale to have its genome analyzed. Researchers are using the genetic blueprint to study why the whales can live longer than 200 years.

Loke Film and Adam Schmedes/Cell Reports 2015

For clues to the genetic underpinnings of a long, healthy life, researchers have unlocked the genome of the massive bowhead whale. The bowhead whale’s genes contain distinct characteristics that help stave off cancer and problems related to aging, researchers suggest in the January 6 Cell Reports.

The bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) can live more than 200 years, making it the longest-lived mammal. Despite having 1,000 times more cells than humans, bowhead whales do not have a higher risk of cancer. To understand the bowhead whales’ health and longevity, scientists analyzed the animal’s genetic instructions and compared them to the human, mouse and cow genomes.

The scientists discovered differences, including mutations and duplications, in the whale genes that are tied to cancer, aging and cell division. The results suggest that the whales are better than humans at repairing their DNA and keeping abnormally dividing cells in check. The whales do not accumulate damaged DNA, allowing them to live longer without developing age-related diseases like cancer, says coauthor João Pedro de Magalhães, a gerontologist at the University of Liverpool.

The researchers hope that identifying genes that help bowhead whales live so long eventually will translate into ways to manipulate similar genes in people, de Magalhães says. “We hope to learn what is the secret for living longer, healthier lives and may be able apply this knowledge to improve human health and preserve human life.” 

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