The scientists found the sperm whales had a different mechanism for protecting themselves from the sun, triggering a stress response in their genes. Newcastle University researcher Amy Bowman added: "We saw for the first time evidence of genotoxic pathways being activated in the cells of the whales this is similar to the damage response caused by free radicals in human skin which is our protective mechanism against sun damage."
In contrast, the darkest whales, the deeply pigmented fin whales, were found to be resistant to sun damage showing the lowest prevalence of sunburn lesions in their skin.
Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse, currently Senior Lecturer at the Universidad Autnoma de Quertaro, Mexico and joint senior author of the paper said: "There has been an increase in the number of reports on blister-type skin lesions in various whale species in areas of high UV radiation. In many cases no infectious microorganism has been found associated with these lesions. It's important that we study the effect of UV radiation on whale skin and the mechanisms that these species use to counteract such damage, both from an evolutionary approach and from a conservation perspective."
To carry out the research the Newcastle University team had to develop an analysis which allowed three whale genomes to be analysed at the same time, a difficult task as whales have very different sequences. This research is the first time that whales have been studied at a genetic level linking to migratory patterns and genetic damage.
"We need to investigate further what is happening," said Professor Birch-Machin, "if we are already seeing blistered skin in the whales caused by UV damage then we want to know whether this could develop into skin cancer and therefore serve as an ear
|Contact: Karen Bidewell|