Can sharks teach us how to cure cancer? Scientists think so

Sharks as a species have been around for more than 400 million years, according to the Smithsonian.

Stanhope co-led the study with Nicholas Marra and Mahmood Shivji, conservation biologists at Nova Southeastern University.

The first "map" of the creature's DNA has uncovered a plethora of mutations that protect against cancer and other age-related diseases, as well as enhanced wound healing.

Buried within the great white's DNA are around 24,500 protein-encoding genes, compared with 19,000 to 20,000 in the average human. "It's plausible that this proliferation of LINEs in the white shark genome could represent a strong selective agent for the evolution of efficient DNA fix mechanisms, and is reflected in the positive selection and enrichment of so many genome stability genes".

Almost 60 percent of the white shark genome consisted of repeated genetic sequences, which is similar to what's seen in the human genome. After decoding the genome of the great white, they compared it to the genomes of a variety of other animals, including humans.

The worldwide research team, which also included scientists from California State University, Monterey Bay, Clemson University, University of Porto, Portugal, and the Theodosius Dobzhansky Center for Genome Bioinformatics, Russia, also found that numerous same genome stability genes in the white shark were also under positive selection and enriched in the huge-bodied, long-lived whale shark.

By contrast, instability in genomes, which is caused by damage done to the DNA, is known to cause cancer and other age-related diseases.

In theory, large genomes with a lot of repeated DNA, like this shark possesses, and its large body size should promote a high incidence of genome instability, with much more DNA and many more cells seemingly vulnerable as targets for damage through an accumulation of routine mutations. This allows sharks to maintain genome stability, which preserves the integrity of the genome, researchers found.

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"Think of it as fine-tuning the role of these genes in maintaining genome stability in the white shark", Stanhope said. "These adaptations involving wound healing genes may underlie the vaunted ability of sharks to heal efficiently from even large wounds". Nonetheless, the abundant presence of specially adapted stability genes could explain the potential cancer resistance.

A genome is the genetic material of an organism. This can lead to age-related diseases such as cancer. "These are things we would have to test in the lab, though, to really know", he said.

We humans like to flatter ourselves and imagine that we have what it takes to survive here on planet Earth, but our reign pales in comparison to that of sharks.

And their other special abilities ...


Other great white gene mutations were found to be linked to processes involved wound healing, including blood clotting. And, similar to the stability genes, the wound-healing genes in the white shark were under the same kind of positive evolutionary selection pressures, meaning there's a tendency for the number of these beneficial traits to increase.

The study also found that the great white genome contains a high number of so-called "jumping genes", or Long interspersed nuclear elements (LINEs). In fact this is one of the highest proportions of LINEs (nearly 30%) discovered in vertebrates so far.

While the team discovered a number of genes that may be responsible for numerous great white's super-shark abilities, there was one characteristic that wasn't clearly accounted for by the genome: the shark's sensitive sniffer.

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