This week, some of them took the first step to stealing the bowhead whale's secrets: They sequenced its genome. Their results were published Tuesday in Cell.
"I think that having the genome sequence of the bowhead whale will allow researchers to study basic molecular processes and identify maintenance mechanisms that help preserve life, avoid entropy and repair molecular damage," said corresponding author Joao Pedro de Magalhaes of the University of Liverpool.
Most research experiments try to model human decay and disease in other animals to learn how to cure it, Magalhaes said. But he hopes he can find organisms that are resistant to certain diseases -- and to some extent, perhaps even aging itself -- and use those tools to better human health.
Of particular interest is the whales' resistance to cancer: The species can weigh as much as 100 tons, and has thousands of times more cells than a human does. So statistically, it would make sense for the whales to exhibit more instances of cancer. But examination hasn't found this to be so.
Magalhaes and his colleagues did find differences between bowhead whales and minke whales (close relatives who only live about 50 years) in genes related to cell cycle, DNA repair, cancer and aging. He believes that bowhead whales may be better at repairing DNA damage, which would keep them alive longer and protect them from diseases like cancer.
But Magalhaes didn't find any important genes in common with the other long-living mammal he's sequenced, the naked mole rat. "Some pathways may be in common in long-lived species, like DNA damage responses, but the specific genes involved seem to be different," he said.
He believes that these two species each work with their own bag of evolutionary tricks -- and he hopes that humans could borrow a few of them.
The study was supported by the Methuselah Foundation and the Life Extension Foundation (which both aim to extend human lifespans through research) in the hopes of finding genes and mechanisms that could inspire drug or genome therapy for human illness. But first Magalhaes will have to move onto mice. If he can splice some of the seemingly important bowhead genes into a mouse and make them do the same jobs, it would be an important step toward lending whale power to human medicine.
At the moment, Magalhaes said, he lacks the funds necessary to take that step.