Bowhead whales’ unparallelled mammalian longevity may hold the genetic equivalent of the Fountain of Youth.
In a recent study published in today in the journal Cell, researchers from the University of Liverpool announced that they have sequenced the genome of the bowhead whale in order to determine how they are able to live for as long as 200 years. Due to the discovery of Victorian-era harpoons found in the blubber of bowhead whales, the researchers are confident that they possess this two hundred year lifespan.
The secret behind bowhead whale longevity
The study was funded by the Methuselah Foundation and the Life Extension Foundation, both of which aim to use research to extend the lifespan of humans. It is hoped that the whale research could uncover genes and mechanisms which would lead to drug or genome therapy to combat illnesses in humans.
“I think that having the genome sequence of the bowhead whale will allow researchers to study basic molecular processes and identify maintenance mechanisms that help preserve life, avoid entropy and repair molecular damage,” said Joao Pedro de Magalhaes of the University of Liverpool.
Magalhaes has taken a different tack than the majority of researchers in the field, who commonly model human decay in other species. He hopes to find disease and decay resistant organisms and use the science behind their longevity to improve the length of human lives.
Fighting cancer and other diseases
Although the bowhead whales are exponentially larger than humans, and as such should have an increased cancer risk, research has shown that this is not the case. Bowhead whales are resistant to cancer, even more so than their close relatives the minke whales, which only live for around 50 years.
Research showed differences between the two whale species in genes related to cell cycle, DNA repair, cancer and aging. Magalhaes claims that bowhead whales may be more adept at repairing DNA damage. If this is true it could be responsible for extending their lives and providing protection from diseases such as cancer.
The genes discovered by the study are not shared by other long-living mammals such as the naked mole rat, although Magalhaes claims that pathways such as DNA damage responses may be shared. There remains a lot of work to do, but if he can successfully introduce the longevity gene from a bowhead whale into a mouse, we could get closer to extending human life using genes from other mammals.