How Do Whales Avoid Cancer?

Whales and their kin are fascinating animals for many reasons. Some species reach lengths greater than 50 feet (15.2m); some are acrobatic and entertaining; many dive deeper than 5,000 feet (1.52km) and hold their breath for longer than an hour. Some travel in pods of more than 1,000 individuals; some live very long lives. Of course, there was a time when the attraction was directly linked to economics and the many products derived from processing these animals.

Those days of harvesting entire animals are mostly past us, with some notable exceptions. Those exceptions can be a topic for a different discussion. However, some recent harvesting of DNA samples has led to groundbreaking research that could be of benefit to people. It should be noted that the collection of DNA samples is a decades long practice and is of no harm to the individual animals. In fact, it is DNA samples, and thousands of photographs, that provide the basis for the North Atlantic Right Whale Database, maintained by the New England Aquarium.

NARW Database

A team of researchers from Northern Arizona University, the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, the Center for Coastal Studies in Massachusetts, and several other cooperating institutions have published a paper that appeared in the May 9, 2019 issue of Molecular Biology and Evolution. This study has the succinct, engaging title: “Return to the sea, get huge, beat cancer:  an analysis of cetacean genomes including an assembly for the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae).”

Biopsy Dart Monica_A_Zani

Tip of biopsy dart, showing skin sample protruding from tip of dart. The tip can be unscrewed and the sample removed. The yellow portion stops the dart from getting too far into the whale and also floats so the arrow can be retrieved. Photo by Monica Zani, New England Aquarium.

Inflatable Whale 4

The Whaling Museum’s inflatable ‘whale tunnel’, based on Salt, the first humpback to be named based on the pattern of the underside of the flukes.

The crux of the research is that despite the fact that these animals can attain enormous sizes and thus have far more cells than humans and other animals that suffer from cancer, they have evolved genomic mechanisms to avoid cancer. As is mentioned in news stories, such as “Why Doesn’t Cancer Affect Whales?” and “How Whales Defy the Cancer Odds: Good Genes”, animals of larger size and weight tend to be more prone to cancer. So why wouldn’t whales – the largest species on earth fit that same mold?  The research explains that they have evolved to avoid cancer through beneficial DNA mutations.

The Museum has a slight, yet fun connection to this story. The humpback whale whose DNA was used in the research is a 43-ft (13.1m) female nicknamed, Salt. She was named for the appearance of the pattern on the underside of her flukes. In fact, she was the first whale for which this was done. She is at least 43 years old, has given birth to 13 calves and is a grandmother 14 times. She is a regular visitor to nearby coastal waters, often entertaining whale watch customers. She is the inspiration for the inflatable whale that the New Bedford Whaling Museum purchased in 2016. Ours is the fourth such inflatable whale tunnel created in her likeness.

This story is a reminder of the benefits, however humanly selfish, of studying the lessons that nature sends our way. Whether it’s mimicking burdock to create Velcro or copying the denticles of shark skin to make swimsuits or to cover boat bottoms, natural features that have evolved over thousands or millions of years have already gone through the engineering process. These work to our benefit. Fortunately, most wildlife management has transitioned to a systems approach rather than species by species. This benefits us as well.

Just as importantly, this research reminds us of the connection between us and the 88 species of cetaceans that inhabit our global ocean, and a handful of the planet’s rivers.  We have depended on them for commerce, entertainment, artistic pursuits and inspiration. They are depending on us to protect their aquatic habitats and the watersheds that drain to them. We strive to do our part here at the Whaling Museum in our exhibits and our programming. We thank those of you who do your part by supporting facilities like ours, whale watch operators, and the researchers who study these animals.

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