Unlocking the genetic secrets of whales with a 200-year life span

Bowhead whale
The bowhead whale can live to be 200 years old.
(Loke Film and Adam Schmedes)

The bowhead whale is the longest-living mammal on Earth with a life span of up to 200 years. Now, scientists have assembled its genome in the hope of learning some of its life-prolonging secrets. 

This week, researchers at the University of Liverpool made the genome of the bowhead whale public on the Internet. The goal is to encourage other scientists to scour the code embedded in its DNA, looking for clues that explain how it lives so long.

“As you can imagine, we cannot do experiments on the bowhead,” said João Pedro de Magalhães, who studies aging at the University of Liverpool in Britain.

But by looking at its genome, and comparing it with other species with shorter life spans, he said, they may be able to identify some of the genetic pathways involved in its longevity.


Magalhães is the lead author of a study describing preliminary analysis of the genome published this week in Cell Reports. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, he said his team had already discovered some changes in bowhead genes that are known to be related to cell cycles, DNA repair, cancer and aging.

He believes these changes suggest bowhead whales may be better at preventing the accumulation of DNA damage over the course of their lives, which allows them to resist age-related diseases.

“But a lot more work is still necessary to prove this,” he said. “For example, by taking bowhead genes and studying them in cells or even in mice.”

The bowhead whale is a large, stocky whale that can grow up to 66 feet in length. It can be found in Arctic and sub-Arctic waters. It is also known as the Greenland Right whale, the Arctic whale and the polar whale.


In the paper, the researchers note that even though the massive whales have more than 1,000 times more cells than humans, they do not have an increased cancer risk, which suggests they have adaptations that allow them to suppress cancer more effectively than other animals.

“Having the genomic sequence of the bowhead whale will allow researchers to study basic molecular processes and identify maintenance mechanisms that preserve life, avoid entropy, and repair molecular damage,” they write. 

Science rules! Follow me @DeborahNetburn and “like” Los Angeles Times Science & Health on Facebook.

Get our weekly Health and Science newsletter

The latest health and science updates, breakthroughs, research, and the best in investigative and informative journalism.

You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.