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Bowhead Whales Reveal DNA Repair Superpower, Offering Clues to Longevity and Cancer Resistance

  • Posted on June 14, 2023
  • News
  • By Top Stories
Bowhead Whales Reveal DNA Repair



Scientists studying bowhead whales, massive marine mammals found near the northern tip of Alaska, have made an incredible discovery. Tissue samples collected from these magnificent creatures have revealed a remarkable superpower: their cells possess an exceptional ability to repair damaged DNA.


This finding, published on May 8 in, sheds light on the whales' potential mechanism for avoiding cancer-causing genetic mutations. The research introduces a fresh perspective on cancer resistance, highlighting the unique strategies employed by these magnificent creatures.


The bowhead whales, known for their impressive longevity, can live for over 200 years, making themselves one-of-a-kind species.


Repairing DNA Damage to Prevent Cancer:


Bowhead whales possess an extraordinary skill that allows their cells to repair damaged DNA efficiently. This remarkable ability may help them avert cancer-causing genetic glitches, according to Orsolya Vincze, an evolutionary ecologist from the French National Center for Scientific Research in Paris.


While scientists have previously explored various biological strategies used by animals to avoid cancer, this study reveals a novel approach employed by bowhead whales.


The bowhead whale, scientifically known as Balaena mysticetus, is among the largest mammals on Earth, measuring approximately 18 meters in length and weighing more than 80,000 kilograms—equivalent to six fully loaded school buses.


With such massive body mass comes an extensive number of cells, each with the potential for dangerous mutations during division.

their cells possess an exceptional ability to repair damaged DNA.
Bowhead whales (a mother and calf shown here) are the world’s longest living mammals. Enhanced ability to repair DNA may be key to their longevity.

Peto's Paradox and Cancer Resistance:


The resistance to cancer exhibited by large-bodied animals has long puzzled researchers—a phenomenon known as Peto's paradox. This paradox suggests that these animals possess robust cancer defenses.


Lisa Abegglen, a cell biologist from the University of Utah Health, explains that elephants, which have a similar lifespan to humans and rarely succumb to cancer, have extra copies of a tumor-blocking gene called TP53.


Other studies have indicated that elephants may clear out damaged cells through this gene and another, effectively dealing with DNA damage.


Alternate Strategies for DNA Repair:


The bowhead whale's genome studied nearly a decade ago, hinted at an alternate strategy for DNA repair. However, concrete experiments were necessary to validate these predictions.


Vera Gorbunova and her colleagues at the University of Rochester in New York conducted a series of experiments on cells obtained from bowhead whale tissue, as well as cells from humans, cows, and mice.


The researchers discovered that bowhead whale cells demonstrated efficient and accurate repair of double-strand breaks in DNA, a type of damage that severs both strands of the DNA double helix. The repair process in whale cells was superior to that observed in other mammals, with repaired DNA returning to a pristine state more frequently.


The team identified two proteins, CIRBP and RPA2, present in bowhead whale cells that contribute to the DNA repair process.


Scientists studying bowhead whales, massive marine mammals found near the northern tip of Alaska,
Bowhead Whales Reveal DNA Repair Superpower, Offering Clues to Longevity (Image Credit: Corey Accardo (NOAA) )

Implications for Cancer Treatment:


The discovery of how animals defend against cancer is an exciting development, as these strategies have the potential to be translated into effective treatments for humans with cancer, says Lisa Abegglen.


Although the application of these findings in human medicine may be a long way off, the study underscores the significance of studying animals with low cancer rates.


Abegglen further suggests the need to investigate whether humpback whales and dolphins possess similar defense mechanisms or employ different strategies.


Nature's Solutions Await:


These findings emphasize the vast amount we can learn from animals with large bodies and long lifespans. Orsolya Vincze believes that the solution to cancer treatment may already exist in nature; we just need to find it.


The study of these majestic creatures offers tremendous potential for unlocking the secrets of longevity and cancer prevention, leading us closer to breakthroughs in cancer medicine.




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