Bowhead whales are believed to have the longest lifespans of all mammals, perhaps living for 200 years or more. Some biologists believe study the genome of these marine animals could allow humans to live extraordinary lifespans. Small changes in the genetic code of the species appear to create immense benefits to health.
The genome and two transcriptomes (non-coding RNA) of bowhead whales were examined, studying segments of the code involved with aging, DNA repair, and cancer.
“[W]e identify gene gain and loss involving genes associated with DNA repair,cell-cycle regulation, cancer, and aging. Our results expand our understanding of the evolution of mammalian longevity and suggest possible players involved in adaptive genetic changes conferring cancer resistance,” Michael Greene of the University of Liverpool and a group of researchers report in an article detailing the study.
Species age at radically different rates, among which are humans, who age significantly more slowly than other primates. Mice age 20 times faster than Homo sapiens, and researchers are still questioning why this difference occurs between the two species.
“There has to be some genetic basis to why humans age slower than chimpanzees for instance which are very genetically very similar to us. Likewise, there has to be some genetic basis as to why bowhead whales live so long and appear protected from diseases,” Joao Pedro de Magalhaes from the University of Liverpool, one of the researchers on the study, said.
Bowhead whales suffer significantly fewer health problems, including cancer, than average humans, despite possessing roughly 1,000 times as many cells.
Longevity genes – those that expand human lifespans – have been a target of researchers, searching for a Fountain of Youth, allowing people to live decades longer than possible today.
The Methuselah Foundation is a organization organizing research into regenerative medicine and tissue engineering. That group invested $10,000 in the research studying bowhead whales, looking for genetic differences that could account for their extreme lifespans.
Bowhead whales are related to right whales, which were heavily hunted during the age of whaling. These animals can grow up to 60 feet in length, and can weigh as much as 60 tons or more. The total population of the animals is believed to be nearly 25,000 in oceans around the world. This is, perhaps, half the number of these animals that were alive before whaling became widespread.
Bodies of the creatures are dark, and are marked by a lack of dorsal fin. They are highly social, and communicate with long songs, some of which may be utilized in mating rituals. They are the first of the great whales to have their genome completely mapped.
This study recognized some of the specific differences between humans and bowhead whales in critical pieces of genome. However, it does not provide any insight into how altering genetic codes to match those in the whales might protect other species.
“The ideal scenario would be to take a gene from the bowhead and put it in mouse and see if that mouse is protected from cancer and see if that mouse lives longer,” Magalhaes told the press.