Aging Whales: Amino Acids

music
ambience: whale sounds

It’s difficult to tell just how long an animal can survive in the wild. Today, marine biologists are using tissue taken from the eyes of Bowhead whales to help determine their real age, with some amazing results. I’m Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet. To measure the age of a whale, researchers are examining compounds called amino acids found in the lens of the animal’s eye. Jeffery Bada is a Professor of marine chemistry at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California.

“There are twenty different amino acids that are found in proteins of living organisms. What’s interesting about these amino acids is that, amino acids have a property called handedness. They come in both left and right handed forms.”

According to Bada, when animals create new tissue, they make only the left-handed form of amino acids. However, there are a few parts of an animal – like teeth, or the lens of the eye – that do contain right-handed amino acids. Bada says scientists can look to these areas for clues to an animal’s age.

“In something like the eye lens nucleus, with increasing age, there are increasingly larger amounts of right-handed amino acids – and so we know the rate of that process. Once we know that we can determine with fairly high precision, how old that animal is.”

When Jeffery Bada and his colleagues examined the eyes of arctic Bowhead whales they came across some remarkable data.

“The oldest Bowhead that we’ve found so far is approaching 200 years old – probably 180 plus or minus 20 or 30 years. That’s a pretty old animal.”

We’ll hear more about Bowhead whales in future programs. Pulse of the Planet is presented with support provided by the National Science Foundation. I’m Jim Metzner.

music

Aging Whales: Amino Acids

Different types of amino acids give new clues to researchers studying the longevity of whales.
Air Date:04/21/2010
Scientist:
Transcript:

music
ambience: whale sounds

It's difficult to tell just how long an animal can survive in the wild. Today, marine biologists are using tissue taken from the eyes of Bowhead whales to help determine their real age, with some amazing results. I'm Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet. To measure the age of a whale, researchers are examining compounds called amino acids found in the lens of the animal's eye. Jeffery Bada is a Professor of marine chemistry at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California.

"There are twenty different amino acids that are found in proteins of living organisms. What’s interesting about these amino acids is that, amino acids have a property called handedness. They come in both left and right handed forms."

According to Bada, when animals create new tissue, they make only the left-handed form of amino acids. However, there are a few parts of an animal - like teeth, or the lens of the eye - that do contain right-handed amino acids. Bada says scientists can look to these areas for clues to an animal's age.

"In something like the eye lens nucleus, with increasing age, there are increasingly larger amounts of right-handed amino acids - and so we know the rate of that process. Once we know that we can determine with fairly high precision, how old that animal is."

When Jeffery Bada and his colleagues examined the eyes of arctic Bowhead whales they came across some remarkable data.

"The oldest Bowhead that we’ve found so far is approaching 200 years old - probably 180 plus or minus 20 or 30 years. That's a pretty old animal."

We'll hear more about Bowhead whales in future programs. Pulse of the Planet is presented with support provided by the National Science Foundation. I'm Jim Metzner.

music