The great white shark is not only a fearsome predator, it also has an unusual resistance to cancer and a remarkable ability to heal quickly from wounds, a team of scientists found after sequencing the genome of the toothy sea creature.
The discovery gives biologists their first insights into the exceptional longevity of the shark — more than 70 years — and also could potentially be used by medical researchers to prevent cancer, treat age-related ailments and heal injuries in humans, the researchers said.
“We think that these key evolutionary traits may help facilitate white sharks’ long life span, large bodies, and may even contribute to sharks’ long-standing success as one of the most ancient vertebrate lineages on Earth,” said Salvador Jorgensen, a senior research scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and a co-author of the study. “Sharks have thrived for some 500 million years, longer than almost any vertebrate on earth.”
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The findings, published Feb. 19 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, represent a breakthrough for scientists studying evolutionary adaptations in the marine environment. The unique blood-clotting and cancer-protection genes in white sharks were also found in whale sharks, dispelling a long-held notion among biologists that animals larger than humans were more susceptible to cancer.
The research team, including scientists from California State University Monterey Bay and several other shark research and veterinary centers in the United States and around the world, used blood, skin and muscle tissue from white sharks off the California coast to identify active genes from the finned creatures’ DNA.
The idea, Jorgensen said, was to identify genes that had evolved, essentially cellular natural selection. What they found were a lot of genes associated with stem cell maintenance and DNA repair, a type they associate with “genome stability” because they are specifically linked to fighting off disease and repairing damage.
The opposite phenomenon, “genome instability,” is known to predispose humans to numerous cancers and age-related diseases, according to the study.
“We find that nature has developed clever strategies to maintain the stability of genomes in these large-bodied, long-lived sharks,” said Mahmood Shivji, the director of the Save Our Seas Foundation Shark Research Center at Nova Southeastern University in Florida, and a lead author of the study, which also compared great white genetics to other animals, including whale sharks and humans.
Besides having more healing properties, scientists were surprised to discover that the great white’s genome is 1½ times the size of the human genetic code, possibly because of all the molecular adaptations.
It is not known whether white sharks actually get cancer, but they are known to heal from wounds, even severe ones, very quickly. The restorative pathways found in sharks have the potential to revolutionize medical science, said Shivji, who co-led the study with Michael Stanhope of the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.
Great white shark attacks
Since 1851, 187 great white shark attacks have been recorded on humans in California, with 16 fatalities.
Most of the attacks have occurred in the fall, especially in October, which some researchers call “Sharktober.” That includes the most recent deaths — of body boarder Lucas Ransom, 19, on Oct. 22, 2010, and surfer Javier Solorio Jr., 39, on Oct. 23, 2012 — both at Surf Beach in Santa Barbara County.
Close to half of California’s shark attacks have occurred in the Red Triangle, but none have been recorded since 2013, when two people were injured by sharks along the San Mateo County coast.
The only reported fatal human-shark encounter off San Francisco shores occurred in May 1959, when 18-year-old Albert Kogler Jr. died after he was attacked in roughly 15 feet of water while swimming off Baker Beach.
Source: Shark Research Institute
“There’s still tons to be learned from these evolutionary marvels,” Shivji said, “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.”
Great white sharks, known scientifically as Carcharodon carcharias, can live 73 years or longer, reach lengths of 20 feet and weigh as much as 7,000 pounds, making them one of the world’s largest predatory fishes.
The sharks, which have long struck fear in Bay Area surfers, abalone divers and swimmers, live worldwide in cool, coastal waters and have been known to dive as deep as 4,000 feet. They have a well-developed sense of smell and eyesight, and an innate ability to sense changes in water pressure, which helps them find prey.
The genetic characteristics of sharks are important, Jorgensen said, because the population of great whites, particularly along the West Coast, remains relatively low compared to their historic numbers. Fewer than 350 adults were counted off the coast a few years ago, but reported sightings and encounters have recently increased, especially along the Central Coast and in Southern California.
It is not the first genetic study of sharks that revealed striking results. A landmark report by Stanford University in 2009 determined that West Coast sharks, known as northeastern Pacific white sharks, are genetically unique compared with other great whites around the world.
The local sharks, which prey mostly on elephant seals, sea lions and sea otters, descended from a relatively small number of sharks in the South Pacific between Australia and New Zealand in the late Pleistocene era, an estimated 200,000 years ago, and have not mixed with other populations since then, the Stanford study found.
The snaggly toothed carnivores are known to spend winters in a deep ocean spot near Hawaii that scientists have dubbed the White Shark Cafe. Starting around
The area they roam — from Monterey Bay to the Farallon Islands and across to Bodega Head — has been known for years as the Red Triangle, a scary-sounding name that many marine biologists shun because it bolsters what they consider a false impression — that great whites are blood-thirsty killing machines.
Attacks on humans are rare, experts say, and are usually the result of a shark mistaking a surfer or abalone diver for a sea lion. The only reported fatality in the Bay Area occurred in 1959, when a swimmer was attacked off Baker Beach in San Francisco.
The researchers said their findings are just the tip of the iceberg of what they expect to learn about white sharks as they continue their studies.