Call them integrative biologists, or comparative genomicists, or bioinformaticians. Whatever you call them, a crew of scientists accounted it high time to explore the genome of the bowhead whale. They were motivated not, as in days of old, by a desire for oil or even revenge, but something rather more benign: genetic secrets of longevity and cancer resistance, which the bowhead whale presumably possesses, given that it can live more than 200 years.

From an academic berth at the University of Liverpool, João Pedro de Magalhães, Ph.D., captained a research effort that sequenced the bowhead genome and transcriptome. Dr. Magalhães’ team also performed a comparative analysis with other cetaceans and mammals.

The researchers presented their results January 6 in Cell Reports, in an article entitled, “Insights into the Evolution of Longevity from the Bowhead Whale Genome.” In this article, they explained how alterations in bowhead genes related to cell division, DNA repair, cancer, and aging may have helped increase the bowhead’s longevity and cancer resistance.

“Our results expand our understanding of the evolution of mammalian longevity and suggest possible players involved in adaptive genetic changes conferring cancer resistance,” wrote the authors. “We also found potentially relevant changes in genes related to additional processes, including thermoregulation, sensory perception, dietary adaptations, and immune response.”

Highlights of the genomic analysis included the following:

  • Bowhead-specific mutations in genes associated with cancer and aging (e.g., ERCC1)
  • Duplications in genes associated with DNA repair, cell cycle, and aging (e.g., PCNA)
  • Changes in genes related to thermoregulation (UCP1) and other bowhead traits

Additional details have been made available online ( to facilitate research of the long-lived bowhead whale.

“Our understanding of species' differences in longevity is very poor, and thus our findings provide novel candidate genes for future studies,” said Dr. Magalhães. “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.”

The authors of the Cell Reports article also noted that large whales, which have over 1,000 times more cells than humans, do not seem to have an increased risk of cancer, suggesting the existence of natural mechanisms that can suppress cancer more effectively than those of other animals.

To follow up on the possibilities they brought to the surface, Dr. Magalhães and his team would next like to breed mice that will express various bowhead genes, with the hopes of determining the importance of different genes for longevity and resistance to diseases before the great shroud of science rolls on.

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