The Secret to a Longer Life May Be Found in Whale DNA

Olga Shpak/Wikipedia Commons
Olga Shpak/Wikipedia Commons / Olga Shpak/Wikipedia Commons

Scientists revealed in Cell Reports scientific journal Monday that they have succeeded in sequencing the genome of the bowhead whale, a marine mammal known for its incredible longevity, Scientific American reports. With a lifespan of over 200 years, the bowhead whale is the longest-living mammal on Earth. By comparing its genes—specifically those for DNA repair, cell cycle, cancer, and the aging process—to those of other mammals, scientists are hoping to improve the health and lifespan of humans. 

University of Liverpool geneticist João Pedro de Magalhães, who led the study, tells Scientific American, “By identifying novel maintenance and repair mechanisms, 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.”

In addition to its lifespan, the bowhead whale’s size (they can grow to up to 60 feet and are the second heaviest whale, behind blue whales) may also prove illuminating for changes in human health. While more complex species tend to have larger genomes, the bowhead whale’s genome, which is smaller than the human genome, shows that there may not be a correlation between body size and genome size in animals. Magalhães says his team was also able to detect a change in one specific gene that helps to regulate body temperature.

Mads Peter Heide-Jørgensen, a biologist at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources and the University of Copenhagen, adds, “Bowhead whales weigh between 50 and 100 tons when fully grown and have probably 1,000 times as many cells as humans, but they apparently have a anti-tumor response at the cell level that is far more efficient than what is found in humans.”

Magalhães and his team plan to conduct further studies in order to fully grasp the implications and applications of their research.