Sharks With Superpowers: Mapping the Great White Shark Genome
“All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks, and that's all.” This quote from Matt Hooper, the marine biologist in “Jaws” goes to show that sharks have been highly villainized for centuries in movies as well as other media. These apex predators are seen as cold, vicious, killing machines. For this reason, the amount of sharks killed by humans far exceeds the amount of fatal shark attacks each year. Inspired by fear, people go out of their way to kill these fish, not to mention, destructive fishing practices such as finning are causing already endangered shark populations to dwindle. However, through recent research, scientists may have found a new reason to conserve and study these mysterious creatures. The mapping of the great white shark genome may hold the secret to longevity and cancer resistance.
For four years scientists worked to map the great white shark genome. To put into perspective the time and effort that went into this project, it is important to mention that the genome of the great white shark is almost double that of the human genome. Here is what scientists have learned through this painstaking process. Much like comic book superheroes, sharks have a variety of unique attributes. Compared to other organisms, sharks have an unusual resistance to injury, with quick blood clotting and tissue regeneration. Scientists such as Mahmood Shivji, one of the co-authors of the shark genome study, also say that that for the size and lifespan of a great white, that sharks should have ample time to develop diseases like cancer, but when studying wild sharks it is incredibly rare to find an unhealthy shark. With these findings, many people are now asking the question, “What does this mean to the public?”
The implications of this research are incredibly beneficial. While there is not much that can be done with this research immediately, in the long term scientists hope to use this knowledge for everything from healing technology to cancer treatments. By using a more complex genome than that of humans, scientists hope to get a better grasp on how the human genome could be improved with genetic modification. People like Shivji hope to blend the genes of humans and great white sharks in order to promote cancer resistance and faster skin regeneration. If successful, these innovations could be groundbreaking in the medical field, allowing cancers to be treated more efficiently and allowing healing in trauma or post-op to be shortened significantly.
While this research on sharks has been primarily advantageous for humans, it has had an adverse effect on sharks. The problem mainly stems from the myth that a shark’s powers can be gained simply by eating shark meat. These tall tales result in the overfishing of sharks worldwide. Unfortunately, while sharks may be able to provide insight into human longevity and overall health, many people misunderstand how. Rather than finning sharks for foods such as shark fin soup, sharks need to be protected and studied.
Despite their reputation, these intimidating ichthyes, could actually be more helpful than harmful to humans. If people help sharks rather than harm them, scientists will be able to study sharks for years to come. These creatures, like superheroes, may be able to contribute their powers to medicine. While sharks may not allow us to become invincible, they can help us to understand our own genome better. These fish are not animals to fear, rather they are animals that humans should get to know better. | Rachel S.
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