Korean research team unlocks whale DNA secrets

A Korean research team has presented the first ever findings on the minke whale genome. 

The world’s largest mammal, the whale, is assumed to have shifted its habitat from land to sea some 60 million years ago. As it did so, the mammal body had to adapt to an aquatic environment. These new findings, accordingly, have become a valuable academic source on evolution itself. 

In addition, the marine mammal is known to have many genes similar with human genes. The new study on how they successfully adapted to an ocean environment is expected to contribute to future studies of human diseases.

The project has been led by researchers at the Korea Institute of Ocean Science and Technology (KIOST) and at the Theragen Bio Institute, along with 24 other domestic and international institutions. The team conducted a full genome sequencing of the whale’s DNA, applying what’s called next generation sequencing (NGS) technology on common minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) found in coastal waters. The NGS technology allows scientists to see the DNA sequence of an organism’s genome. 

Whale DNA clues might help cure human diseases

The research results were published in Nature Genetics on November 25 in the article titled, “Minke whale genome and aquatic adaptation in cetaceans.” The study investigated a number of whale-specific genes, in addition to the adaptation of whales to ocean life, such as their well-noted capability to resist physiological stress caused by a lack of oxygen and high salt levels. The new study is expected to contribute to future studies on human diseases, such as hypoxia, a lack of oxygen, and cardiovascular disorders. 

“It is the first study on whales’ physiological and morphological characteristics at a molecular level,” said Professor Yim Hyung-soon from the KIOST, co-author of the article. “This will possibly contribute to future research on the overall ecology for marine mammals.” 

Widening the breadth of their study, the research team also looked at the genes of the fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus), the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncates) and the finless porpoise (Neophocaena phocaenoides), as well as the common minke whale. Based on the collected data, they will carry out a follow-up study on aquatic adaptation, evolution and its correlation with human diseases. 

“Unlike fish, whales do not have gills. But they are still known for deep diving, with no need to breathe, for a maximum of one hour,” said head of the research team Lee Jung-hyun of the KIOST. “Whales must have a good rheobase which helps them resist the lack of oxygen,” he said, referring to the amount of electrical current required to excite a nerve or muscle. “The utilization of our results will possibly create new possibilities to cure hypoxia-specific diseases, such as strokes and heart attacks, as well as helping with further studies on the genetic diversity of minke whales.” 

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