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How a 200-Year-Old Whale Might Help Us Live Longer

Scientists have sequenced the genome of the world’s oldest-living mammal in search of the keys to longevity

A bowhead whale is the longest-living mammal on earth (Denis Scott/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

The life of a bowhead whale is relatively quiet: it spends its days swimming in the frigid waters of the Artic, feasting on zooplankton and breaking through up to two feet of ice to take a breath. But this giant animal's lifespan is also thought to be the longest of any mammal on earth, and a new study by genomic scientists provides insight into why the creature is able to survive diseases and disorders that kill other mammals earlier in life.

A team at the University of Liverpool has sequenced the genome of the bowhead and released a study identifying a collection of genes that may be responsible for the whale’s durability. In comparing the genome of the bowhead with that of the shorter-lived minke whale, the scientists discovered that the bowhead has gene mutations that are thought to manipulate cell growth, helping to repair DNA and increase cancer resistance.

"We know DNA damage and DNA mutation are important for cancer. So when we find genes related to DNA repair and DNA damage responses, we think maybe this could be involved in longevity and disease resistance of the bowhead," Joao Pedro de Magalhaes, the study’s lead researcher, told CBS News.

Just how do we know that bowhead whales live to such a ripe old age? Studying the changes to the amino acids in the eyes of captured whales give scientists some clues. But the most conclusive evidence comes from antique hunting gear pulled from the whales’ blubber.

Alaskan Inupiat hunters have discovered Victorian-era harpoon points in some bowheads caught, indicating life spans of 130-170 years, with one specimen indicating a life of 211 years. The Inupait, who have hunted the whale for over 4,000 years, are known to pass down to multiple generations information about individual whales’ distinctive markings. 

Magalhaes' research was funded by the Methuselah Foundation and the Life Extension Foundation—two groups devoted to extending the lifespans of people—with the hope that the information gained from studies like this may be applied to preventing or curing human maladies. Magalhaes wants to one day modify human genes to mirror the key genes of the bowhead whale–but cautions that such work won’t be possible for years to come. Still, the more we learn about the ways in which cells grow, heal and die, the closer we get to manipulating them in our own bodies.

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