Vera Gorbunova takes a mechanistic approach to biology, but studies problems of high interest to evolutionary biologists, such as longevity and genome stability. She pioneered the comparative biology approach to study aging, and discovered principles that underlie the evolution of tumor suppression. Currently, much of the focus of her research has been on the longest-lived mammalian species and their mechanisms of longevity and cancer resistance.
Learn more about her work here.
Mammals have evolved great diversity of lifespans and body sizes. Longer lifespan and larger body size necessitate more elaborate tumor suppressor mechanisms. We previously showed that replicative senescence and repression of somatic telomerase activity evolves in species with body mass greater than 10 kg, and provides an additional barrier in the way of malignant transformation, where cancerous cells must activate telomerase. In that study we investigated the species with body sizes up to 55 kg. However, the question remained whether species of even larger body mass evolve novel tumor suppressors. Studies of elephants revealed duplications of p53 tumor suppressor genes. However, elephants’ size pales in comparison to baleen whales. The bowhead whale can reach body mass of 100,000 kg and has the maximum lifespan of 211 years. Here we investigated requirements for malignant transformation in the bowhead whale and not only did not find duplications of tumor suppressors, but found that whale require even fewer oncogenic hits for malignant transformation. Instead, we found that whales possess more accurate DNA repair and very efficient antioxidant defenses. We conclude that duplication of “gate-keeper” type tumor suppressors is not the only way to achieve cancer-free longevity; the largest mammals, instead, upregulated their DNA maintenance pathways that presumably prevent the appearance of cancer-causing mutations.