Bowhead whale genes provide clues to longevity and health

8 Jan 2015

A bowhead whale breaks the water's surface. Photo via Kate Stafford/Cell Reports 2015

The bowhead whale could shed light on healthy ageing, according to an international study involving scientists from Dublin City University (DCU).

What can whale genes tell us about healthy ageing? To find out, a just-published international study has been plumbing the genome of the bowhead whale, which is thought to be capable of living for 200 years in relatively good health.

Wisdom from long-lived creatures

Looking at the genomes of long-lived creatures stands to give us insights into the mechanisms of ageing, according to Dublin City University scientist Dr Mary O’Connell, who contributed to the new study published in the journal Cell Reports.

“There are a number of species that can live longer than humans, for example, the bowhead whale and tortoises,” she says. “Bowhead whales are mammals and therefore are more closely related to us, and so the molecular mechanisms underlying their exceptional longevity and resistance to age-related disease are of particular interest for human health.”

Health-related genes

Dr Mary O’Connell, Dublin City University scientist

In humans, the likelihood of conditions such as cancer and neurodegenerative, cardiovascular and metabolic diseases tends to rise with increasing age. Yet despite their longevity, bowhead whales have a relatively low probability of cancer, notes O’Connell, a Fulbright Scholar who leads the Bioinformatics and Molecular Evolution Group at DCU. Dr Andrew Webb, who was a PhD student in the DCU group at the time is a co-first author on the paper.

The study, which was led by Dr João Pedro de Magalhães at the University of Liverpool and involved researchers from several countries, compared the bowhead whale genome to that of some other mammals, including the shorter-lived minke whale, which has a maximum lifespan of about 50 years.

So what did the bowhead whale have that made it stand out?

“Our analysis showed birth and death of genes in the bowhead whale genome that are associated with repairing DNA when it is damaged, in regulating how and when cells divide, in cancer and in ageing,” says O’Connell.

“So what really jumped out were a bunch of candidate genes that are potentially involved in conferring cancer resistance – something of particular interest to the human population at large. But also we found a number of key genes that have bowhead-unique mutations that are involved in other necessary adaptations to life in an aquatic environment, such as how to perceive the environment (sensory perception) and dietary adaptations.”

Next steps in research

The dataset from the bowhead whale study is available to other researchers, which O’Connell sees as a key aspect of bringing the findings forward.

“Sharing data, ideas, concepts and expertise is how science works, and making data available to the entire community is important if we are to maximise what we can possibly learn,” she says.

“We have some more work to do, but from this study we have some strong candidates to explore in further detail. The next step will be to take the bowhead whale versions of these candidate genes and explore them in model systems to determine if they confer disease resistance and longevity in those systems, too. If they do, then (they could be) prime candidates for therapeutics. This fundamental science study and others like it hold great promise in our fight against age-related diseases, such as cancer.”

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication