The world’s scariest shark may one day save lives

The great white shark accounts for about half of fatal shark attacks. But scientists think the ocean’s most fearsome predator could one day offer hope for saving human lives.

A team of scientists announced in recent days that they have cracked the genetic code of the great white, as a step toward unlocking the secrets of a species with a notorious reputation, an impressive resistance to genetic damage and a 500-million-year record of success.

“It’s really a miracle of evolution,” says the biologist Matt Hooper in the movie “Jaws,” where the great white made its ferocious debut in the public imagination. “All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks, and that’s all.”

But as real marine biologists know, that’s not all. The great white can cross the ocean. It can dive below 3,000 feet. It has a powerful sense of smell and the ability to detect other animals’ electric fields. And of great potential practical interest, its body heals wounds quickly and its cells resist the genetic damage that can lead to cancer.

The shark’s genetic information will help conserve a species listed as “vulnerable” internationally. It will yield insights into their biology. And far down the road it could provide benefits to human health.

Great whites, given the nature of how they make their living, get into some violent encounters. But scientists have long observed that their wounds heal with impressive speed. In examining their genes, they found several that would account for this, including one involved with blood clotting.

Of potentially greater human significance, scientists have begun unraveling the genes that may help great whites prevent cancer. Large animals, because of the sheer number of cells in their bodies, should be at greater risk that cells will turn cancerous, Shivji said. This should be particularly true of species such as the great white, which can live 70 years or more, giving its cells ample time to develop cancer-causing mutations. But scientists suspect that sharks have a higher resistance to cancer than other vertebrates, and one reason may be the genetic mechanisms for preventing the DNA damage that produces cancer.

In great white, scientists found several genes that played roles in maintaining the stability of the genome, preventing the mutations that could lead to cancer or age-related diseases.

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