Studying the genetics of the Bowhead whale could lead to extending the the lifespan of humans
Studying the genetics of the Bowhead whale could lead to extending the lifespan of humans Corey Accardo: NOAA

Scientists mapping the genome for the world's longest-living mammal, the bowhead whale say it could be used to prolong the life of human beings.

Bowhead whales have a lifespan of up to 200 years and scientists have studied why this mammal rarely develops conditions such as cancer and heart disease.

This species outlives other whale species by far and studies in the UK and America have charted out the whales' genetic patterns. Scientists have identified a number of unique genes links to cancer resistance, DNA damage repair and increased longevity, according to a Sunday Times report.

Joao Pedro de Magalhaes, lead researcher of the UK-based study says this discovery could lead to the whale genes being utilised in assisting people live for longer.

"My ideal next experiment is to take a gene from the bowhead whale and put it in a mouse and see if that mouse will live longer and be protected against cancer," he said.

"If they do what I expect them to do, then we could try to think of ways to employ the knowledge for [human] therapeutic purposes."

The study, conducted at the Liverpool Centre for Genomics Research, found that the bowhead had unique mutations in two genes linked to lifespan in animals. These are the ERCC1 gene, which is believed to repair DNA, increase cancer resistance and show ageing.

The PCNA gene is also linked to DNA repair.

Bowheads were once believed to live to around 70 years, similar to other whales. However, discoveries of 19th century ivory, slate, and jade spear points in freshly killed whales in 1993, 1995, 1999, and 2007 suggest that some of the animals reached 150-200 years old.

In May 2007, a 15m (49ft) specimen caught off the Alaskan coast was discovered with the head of an explosive harpoon embedded deep under its neck blubber. The 3.5-inch (89 mm) arrow-shaped projectile was manufactured in New Bedford, Massachusetts, a major whaling centre, around 1890, suggesting the animal may have survived a hunt more than 100 years before.

The whales can grow to 20m (66ft) in length and weigh up to 100 tonnes. They live entirely in fertile Arctic and sub-Arctic waters, unlike other whales that migrate to feed or reproduce to low latitude waters. The bowhead has the largest mouth of any animal and its blubber is the thickest of any animal, averaging 43-50cm (17-20in).

The bowhead was an early whaling target and its population dramatically reduced until protected by a commercial whaling moratorium in 1996. Its population is estimated to be over 24,900 worldwide, down from an estimated 50,000 before whaling.