Ageing insights from whale genome

21 January 2015

The genome of the bowhead whale could unravel some of the secrets around ageing, according to research published in Cell.

Bowhead whales have a maximum lifespan exceeding 200 years, making them the longest-lived mammals. Not only do they have an extreme lifespan, but also typically remain very healthy; in particular, they have much lower cancer rates than humans, despite having a thousand times more cells.

The new collaborative study involved sequencing and analysing the genome of the bowhead whale to identify ‘longevity assurance’ mechanisms. Pedro Magalhaes, senior author of the study, said: “We believe that different species evolved different ‘tricks’ to have a long lifespan, and by discovering those used by the bowhead whale we may be able to apply these findings to humans in order to fight age-related diseases”.

Initial analysis of the whale genome has found differences between genes in bowhead whales and other animals – including other whales. The researchers found unique mutations in bowhead whales’ ERCC1 gene, involved in repairing damaged DNA and found that PCNA gene (associated with cell growth and DNA repair) contained a duplicated section of DNA. To determine whether any of these genes are responsible for the lifespan of the whale the researchers want to breed mice that will express these genes.

An online genome portal is available containing the study’s data and results, the researchers hope it will facilitate and foster further research into other traits as well as longevity.

In the quest to expand human lifespan and health span, Magalhaes and his team are not alone. Last year Joon Yun set up the Palo Alto Longevity Prize, which awards scientists in the first instance for restoring vitality and extending lifespan in mice by 50%. 2014 also marked the creation of Human Longevity Inc. which aims to create a giant database of 1 million human genome sequences by 2020, including from supercentenarians. 

Some scientists believe that by tackling ageing at the root they could lower all age related diseases simultaneously rather than tackling one disease at a time, improving health span. Debate remains between scientists as to whether there is a limit or not to lifespan; some scientists believe there is a maximum threshold not much more than the current 120 years .  

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