• Scientists have successfully mapped the great white shark genome and found they have 41 pairs of chromosomes, whereas humans have 21.
  • Theoretically, this should mean they have a higher risk of developing cancer. Sharks seem to be an exception and live longer and heal faster than humans.
  • It suggests they have evolved superior cancer-protective abilities and could be capable of repairing their DNA, something that humans cannot. 

Scientists have successfully mapped the genome, the complete set of genes or genetic material present in a cell or organism, of the great white shark and found that it contains large amounts of information that could reveal the secrets of cancer.

In a major scientific step to understand the biology of this iconic apex predator and sharks in general, the entire genome of the white shark has now been decoded in detail. 

A team led by scientists from Nova Southeastern University’s (NSU) Save Our Seas Foundation Shark Research Center and Guy Harvey Research Institute (GHRI), Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, and Monterey Bay Aquarium.

While humans only have 23 pairs of chromosomes, great whites have 41. Theoretically, the risk of developing cancer should increase with both the number of cells (large bodies) and an organism’s lifespan. Sharks seem to be an exception -suggesting they have evolved superior cancer-protective abilities and could be capable of repairing their DNA, something that humans cannot. 

“Decoding the white shark genome is providing science with a new set of keys to unlock lingering mysteries about these feared and misunderstood predators - why sharks have thrived for some 500 million years, longer than almost any vertebrate on earth” said Dr. Salvador Jorgensen, a Senior Research Scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, who co-authored the study.

The scientists found a specific DNA sequence intimately tied to DNA repair, DNA damage response, and DNA damage tolerance, otherwise known as a ‘stable genome’. This is the opposite to human cancers and age-related diseases sequences, which results from accumulated DNA damage or genome instability, when your cells stop reproducing correctly and start to rapidly mutate. 

The shark genomes revealed other intriguing evolutionary adaptations in genes linked to wound healing pathways. Sharks are known for their impressively rapid wound healing.

“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,” said Michael Stanhope, of Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

“These adaptations involving wound healing genes may underlie the vaunted ability of sharks to heal efficiently from even large wounds.”

The researchers say they have just explored the “tip of the iceberg” with respect to the white shark genome.

The research was funded by NSU’s Save Our Seas Foundation, the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, the Hai Stiftung/Shark Foundation, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and in-kind support from Illumina, Inc., and Dovetail Genomics.

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