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Chris Hadfield
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Scientists map great white shark genome, revealing clues about cancer and healing wounds

Can learning about the great white shark help protect us from cancer?

Scientists map great white shark genome, revealing clues about cancer and healing wounds
(Photo: Lalo Saidy / Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
  • Scientists have mapped the entire genome of the great white shark.
  • The team found genetic adaptations that seem to help the fish preserve and repair its genome, clues that may help us better understand why sharks rarely get cancer.
  • The team also identified several gene pathways that might also help explain the fish's extraordinary wound-healing capabilities.

An international team of scientists has decoded the entire genome of the great white shark, an achievement that could help us better fight cancer and learn more about the fish's extraordinary healing capabilities.

How could the great white shark – an apex predator that can reach 20 feet long and 7,000 pounds – provide humanity with potentially life-saving knowledge about cancer and other diseases? For one, the great white shark is a champion of evolution; its DNA has been fine-tuned by millions of years spent thriving in the world's oceans with no natural predators. Mapping the great white's genome could illuminate the keys to this evolutionary success.

The team, which published its findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, compared the great white's genome to that of humans and other vertebrates. The researchers found patterns of DNA sequence changes that indicated molecular adaptation in genes related to maintaining genome stability, through functions including DNA damage response, DNA repair and DNA damage tolerance – all of which can protect against cancer.

This might explain why sharks rarely suffer from the disease.

"Not only were there a surprisingly high number of genome stability genes that contained these adaptive changes, but there was also an enrichment of several of these genes, highlighting the importance of this genetic fine-tuning in the white shark," Mahmood Shivji, Ph.D., director of NSU's Save Our Seas Foundation Shark Research Center and GHRI, said in a statement.

The researchers also found that the great white's genome contains one of the highest proportions of transposons – also known as "jumping genes" – ever discovered among vertebrates.

"These LINEs are known to cause genome instability by creating double stranded breaks in DNA," study co-author Michael Stanhope said in a statement. "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 repair mechanisms, and is reflected in the positive selection and enrichment of so many genome stability genes."

Rapid wound healing

A great white shark near The Neptune Islands, South Australia, sticks its head out of the water, baring its teeth.

Photo: Brad Leue / Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

In addition to being able to preserve and repair genetic information, sharks are also known for their uncanny ability to recover from external injuries. For example, a 2015 study on blacktip reef sharks found they were able to heal wounds rapidly – sometimes within days – even when injuries were severe.

"We found positive selection and gene content enrichments involving several genes tied to some of the most fundamental pathways in wound healing, including in a key blood clotting gene," Stanhope said. "These adaptations involving wound healing genes may underlie the vaunted ability of sharks to heal efficiently from even large wounds."

Uncovering the 'tip of the iceberg' in shark genome research

The great white shark's ability to protect its genome may well help humans someday do the same, but it'll take years to incorporate these findings into approved treatments.

"Genome instability is a very important issue in many serious human diseases; now we find that nature has developed clever strategies to maintain the stability of genomes in these large-bodied, long-lived sharks," said Shivji. "There's still tons to be learned from these evolutionary marvels, including information that will potentially be useful to fight cancer and age-related diseases, and improve wound healing treatments in humans, as we uncover how these animals do it."

Take your career to the next level by raising your EQ

Emotional intelligence is a skill sought by many employers. Here's how to raise yours.

Gear
  • Daniel Goleman's 1995 book Emotional Intelligence catapulted the term into widespread use in the business world.
  • One study found that EQ (emotional intelligence) is the top predictor of performance and accounts for 58% of success across all job types.
  • EQ has been found to increase annual pay by around $29,000 and be present in 90% of top performers.
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Yale scientists restore cellular function in 32 dead pig brains

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
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Here’s a map of Mars with as much water as Earth

A 71% wet Mars would have two major land masses and one giant 'Medimartian Sea.'

Just imagine: a Mars that's as wet as Earth.

Image: A.R. Bhattarai, reproduced with kind permission
Strange Maps
  • Sci-fi visions of Mars have changed over time, in step with humanity's own obsessions.
  • Once the source of alien invaders, the Red Planet is now deemed ripe for terraforming.
  • Here's an extreme example: Mars with exactly as much surface water as Earth.
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The entrepreneur's guide to success: Follow these tips

Starting and running a business takes more than a good idea and the desire to not have a boss.

Videos
  • Anyone can start a business and be an entrepreneur, but the reality is that most businesses will fail. Building something successful from the ground up takes hard work, passion, intelligence, and a network of people who are equally as smart and passionate as you are. It also requires the ability to accept and learn from your failures.
  • In this video, entrepreneurs in various industries including 3D printing, fashion, hygiene, capital investments, aerospace, and biotechnology share what they've learned over the years about relationships, setting and attaining goals, growth, and what happens when things don't go according to plan.
  • "People who start businesses for the exit, most of them will fail because there's just no true passion behind it," says Miki Agrawal, co-founder of THINX and TUSHY. A key point of Agrawal's advice is that if you can't see yourself in something for 10 years, you shouldn't do it.

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