Researchers may have found the Fountain of Youth in the ocean, specifically in the genome of the bowhead whale. In a study recently published in Cell Reports, an international team of scientists has found that the bowhead whale possesses several genetic traits that may unlock the secrets of long life and disease resistance.

Bowhead whales are among the longest-living mammals, surviving for up to 200 years. They also are remarkably resilient, rarely falling prey to disease. In fact, they seem to exhibit cancer resistance; almost never showing tumor growth or any of the gene markers characteristically associated with the disease.Kang and Michalak

Such revelations could uncover the fundamental mechanisms of aging and disease that humans have long been seeking to understand.

Virginia Bioinformatics Institute Associate Professor Pawel Michalak and graduate student Lin Kang provided bioinformatics and comparative genome analysis for the project. Their focus was variability within non-coding regions of the bowhead whale genome in comparison to other mammalian genomes, such as the minke whale and orca.

“Mammals have evolved a remarkable diversity of aging rates and cancer susceptibilities, including certain species that are essentially cancer-proof. Comparative genomics emerges as a new tool to the discovery of genetic factors responsible for longevity and tumor suppression,” said Michalak.

Bowhead whales are among the planet’s largest mammals, in addition to being the longest-lived. Although they weigh anywhere from 50 to 100 tons and have 1000 times more cells than humans, their systems are far more efficient at housekeeping than human cells are, since they rarely experience tumor growth.

“This is a very important scientific paper that provides new gene information that will advance our understanding of cancer and other aging diseases, laying the foundation for future cancer preventions, diagnostics and therapeutics,” said Harold Skip Garner, leader of the Medical Informatics and Systems division at the institute, of which Michalak is a member.

Published by Tiffany Trent, January 14, 2015