Featured Image Credit: Serguei S. Dukachev
By Emily Persico
Scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) are using an ultra-high-resolution tribid mass spectrometer to unlock the secrets of the dolphin genome. While this fancy piece of technology may sound like something straight out of Back to the Future, it is as real as life and may just hold the answers to many of our medical woes.
The first bottlenose dolphin genome map was compiled in 2008. Now, Ben Neely and his colleagues have added another layer atop the already complex genome map: a detailed index of every bottlenose dolphin protein. Mike Janech of the Medical University of South Carolina break it down for us.
“Genes carry the information of life,” he explains. “But proteins execute the functions.”
This work has far-reaching implications for dolphins in captivity and in the wild, including better aquarium care and more accurate assessments of wild dolphin populations. It can help reveal environmental contaminants wrapped up in our global ocean food chain by providing scientists with more data than ever before. The study of dolphin proteins can even teach us about human health.
“We are now entering what could be called the post-model organism era,” envisions Neely. He explains that, instead of just mimicking structural aspects of the natural world to find solutions to human problems, we are now able to mimic even the most minute of nature’s patterns.
By looking at different proteins in the bodies of dolphins, scientists can begin to understand how deep-diving marine mammals can halt blood flow to their essential organs, a feat that would almost certainly cause kidney failure or a stroke in a human after just a few seconds.
“There’s this gap in the knowledge about genes and the proteins they make,” says Janech. “We are missing a huge piece of the puzzle in how these animals do what they do.”
The missing puzzle pieces may just hold the answer for people with diabetes, failing kidneys, high blood pressure, and more.
“It’s amazing to think that we are at a point where cutting-edge research in marine mammals can directly advance human biomedical discoveries,” says Neely.
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