Bowhead whales could hold secrets in their genome that could lead to significantly longer lifespans for human beings, according to new research from the University of Liverpool in England. Marine biologists believe bowhead whales may be the longest-living of all mammals, with lifespans extending to 200 years or more.
Animal species can age at radically different rates, even if two different types of animals are closely related. Humans, for instance, age much more slowly than other primates. Mice, on the other hand, age up to 20 times faster than an average person. No one is certain why these differences are exhibited in various species of animals.
The genome and two transcriptomes (non-coding segments of RNA) were studied by investigators, in an effort to identify differences between genetic codes of humans and the whales.
"My view is that species evolved different 'tricks' to have a longer lifespan, and by discovering the 'tricks' used by the bowhead we may be able to apply those findings to humans in order to fight age-related diseases," João Pedro de Magalhães from the University of Liverpool, said.
Actions of the genome in slowing the aging process remain a mystery to researchers, although such qualities in bowhead whales have long been suspected. In addition to retarding the progression of aging in people, several advances in the fight against cancers may also be developed through this research.
"In particular in the context of cancer, bowhead whales must have anti-tumor mechanisms, because given their large size and longevity, their cells must have a massively lower chance of developing into cancer when compared to human cells," researchers reported on the website for The Bowhead Whale Genome Resource.
Bowhead whales possess roughly 1,000 times as many cells as human beings, yet their rates of cancer are much lower than those seen in our own species. They grow to 65 feet in length or more, and were the first of the big whales to have their genome completely mapped by geneticists.
Researchers are uncertain whether customizing genes in other animals to match those in bowhead whales would deliver similar protections to other species. Future research could involve altering the genetic code of mice to test whether they can be protected from cancer.
Bowhead whales are members of the right whale family, and were heavily hunted. There are perhaps 25,000 members of the species alive today around the world, half the population prior to whaling.
The Methuselah Foundation, a group organized to lengthen the human lifespan through genetic means, sponsored the new research with a $10,000 award.