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Study: Bowhead Whale Genome May Hold Secret to Longevity

The Bowhead whale gets its name from its high arched lower jaw that looks like an archer’s bow. (Loke Film and Adam Schmedes/Cell Reports 2015)

The Bowhead whale may harbor the secret to longevity, according to a new study that describes its genome.

Native to the Arctic, the bowhead is big and strong and can live 200 years, possibly the longest lifespan of any mammal. But why does it live so long? That question has intrigued University of Liverpool scientist Joao Pedro Magalhaes for a long time.

“Why do human beings age slower than other primates?" he says. "Why do mice age so much faster than humans or whales? And likewise, why do bowhead whales seem to live longer than human beings and seem to be protected against some age-related disease like cancer?”

Magalhaes says this remains a mystery. But in sequencing the genome, the scientists looked for patterns comparing the bowhead to other closely related, but shorter-lived species, such as the Minke whale. Magalhaes says the team focused on identifying genes with bowhead specific mutations.

“We looked for genes that are duplicated — that is, they have multiple copies in the bowhead whale, but not in other related species. And this revealed a number of promising leads.”

In the journal Cell Reports, Magalhaes and colleagues describe alterations in bowhead genes related to cell division, DNA repair, cancer and aging. Magalhaes says different long-lived species use different tricks to evolve a long life span. He wants to uncover the natural mechanism that triggers that process.

“If I can figure out what are these tricks in the bowhead and what makes them live so long and protects against diseases, we can then try to apply them to human beings, which could involve pharmacological interventions or pharmacological targeting of particular genes," he said. "It could involve gene therapy.”

The next step, he says, is to breed mice with bowhead whale genes, to determine the importance of different longevity and age-related mutations. But the sequence has other applications, too: understanding population dynamics and genetic diversity can help conservationists working to protect the species, which is threated by habitat loss and toxins in the environment.