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Whale of a Genome

An international team of researchers has delved into the genome of the bowheaded whale to better understand how it not only can live for 200 years, but also how it stays healthy during its long lifespan — whales develop cancer at lower rates than people do, despite their larger size.

The University of Liverpool's João Pedro de Magalhães and his colleagues sequenced the bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) genome using the Illumina HiSeq platform as well as generated transcriptome data from seven tissues from whales belonging to two different populations, as they note in Cell Reports.

Through comparative analyses, they found a number of genes under positive selection within the bowhead whale genome and identified a number of species-specific mutations in genes that have been linked to cancer and aging.

"By identifying novel maintenance and repair mechanisms, we hope to learn what is the secret for living longer, healthier lives and may be able apply this knowledge to improve human health and preserve human life," Magalhães tells Reuters.

For instance, they uncovered differences in the ERCC1, HDAC1, and HDAC2 genes of the bowheaded whale as compared to nine other mammals. Additionally, they found that the DNA damage repair- and aging-related gene PCNA is duplicated in the bowhead whale and, according to their transcriptomic data, both copies are expressed. These changes, Magalhães and his colleagues say, could be linked to the whale's long and rather healthy life.

"My own view is that different long-lived species use different tricks to evolve long lifespans, and there aren't many genes in common," Magalhães tells LiveScience. "But you do find some common pathways, so there may be common patterns."