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Indiana State professor aids high-profile whale study

January 28, 2015

The same way an indigenous population harvests a whale and uses every part of it for subsistence, researchers around the world have harvested genetic data about the bowhead whale for a variety of uses.

During part of a sabbatical in 2011, Indiana State University biology professor emeritus Gary Stuart was among the 30 researchers plus technicians in laboratories all around the world.

"What this lab is interested in is slightly different from what that lab is interested in. I think the U.K. people are very, very interested in aging affects," Stuart said. "There were other people involved who were more interested in cancer and the ability of the whale to survive a very long time with what appears to be less probability of getting cancer. There was a variety of interests in sequencing the whale."

Stuart worked with John Bickham of Purdue on research mostly rooted in conservation of the species. Bickham, who met Stuart when Bickham was a guest speaker at Indiana State, had been collaborating with the indigenous population in the North Slope communities of Alaska.

"They still harvest the bowhead whale in a cultural ceremony. They use products from the whale to survive in that difficult environment. They have these yearly ceremonial harvests; that's their way of life," Stuart said. "It's important for them to understand how the whale is surviving in that environment. Historically, it's been over-hunted; commercial hunting really did a number on the population."

Stuart, who describes his role in the overall project as "small," helped Bickham probe the genetic sequences of the whale to determine the genetic health of the population. Specifically, the team was primarily responsible for generating the transcriptome -- the collection of all the messenger RNA molecules expressed from the whale's genome.

When a species is over-hunted, a genetic bottleneck can occur, as "the number of individuals gets so small that the gene pool gets too small ... and lacks all the tools to adapt to a changing environment," he said. What they discovered is the bowhead whale population has rebounded nicely since commercial whaling stopped.

"It's good -- it's better than perhaps some people may have predicted," he said.

The bowhead whale is one of the longest living mammals -- and therefore of interest to the large group of researchers, be it aging or cancer.

"Whales have about 1,000 times more cells than we do. If you think of cancer as bad luck, then having 1,000 times more potential for bad luck is a difficult thing," Stuart said. "One has to ask how can whales seem to avoid cancer? If you put together the idea that they live 200 years and have a 1,000 more cells (so 1,000 times greater chance of a cell going awry), you can't logically escape the idea that they have cancer-prevention mechanisms we don't have. It's likely hidden in the genome how that works."

And interest in these topics extends beyond researchers, as the project's findings have attracted much media interest around the world.

"Will it be a gene that prevents cancer? Probably not. It'll be a constellation of genes that interacts in a way that in the end is preventative in perhaps subtle ways," Stuart said. "It's kind of like comparing two different kinds of cars -- one gets 50,000 miles and the other gets 200,000 miles. Why are these cars different? They have all the same pieces, they're pretty much the same. It's with how they're arranged and put together to begin with. The same is true for whales versus humans."

Land-locked Indiana may not seem like an ideal place to study ocean life, but Stuart has made a career of it, going back to his study of the highly portable zebra fish.

"I'm kind of a nuts-and-bolts kind of guy," Stuart said. "How does the genome regulate the development of the individual? How is all that processed? What are the mechanics for expressing genes? That's my history. As I developed here as a faculty member, I became interested in full genomes."

Similarly, Bickham's affiliation at Purdue was forestry and natural resources -- seemingly an ecosystem away from whales. Bickham now works for the research and development company Battelle in Houston.

"Once you're involved in a social network and you know people, you know what they're capable of doing. Definitely forestry is interested in conservation and natural resources and so is John," Stuart said. "Just the sheer overlap in that kind of approach -- it's not a tree or a plant, it's a whale -- I think that made sense to them."

Stuart, who is looking forward to future projects researching male genetic diversity and the role of dominant genes and collaborating with Indiana State colleague assistant professor Yongsheng Bai on mechanical processes of a gene in the whale, is no stranger to group think.

Stuart is also affiliated with Indiana State University's The Center for Genomic Advocacy, an Unbounded Possibilities initiative. The center works to develop a community of advocates through interdisciplinary studies in biology, political science, business, ethics and health to help prepare for the societal transformation genomic technology will bring.

"In a general sense, it's really important for scientists to be able to get together in research meetings and talk about things -- to get this kind of creative fountain," he said. "That kind of happened with John and I. It became a goal of mine to work with him."

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Contact: Gary Stuart, Biology Professor Emeritus and Researcher, The Center for Genomic Advocacy, Indiana State University, Gary.Stuart@indstate.edu

Writer: Libby Roerig, media relations assistant director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or libby.roerig@indstate.edu

Story Highlights

Gary Stuart, biology professor emeritus and The Center for Genomic Advocacy affiliate, was among the 30 researchers around the world studying the long-lived bowhead whale.

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