What this fish's DNA teaches us about healing cancer

If there was a time machine that could take you back in time 150 million years, you probably wouldn't recognize Earth. The supercontinent Pangea was about to break up and ichthyosaurs ruled the sea. However, if you stick your head in the river, you may encounter at least one familiar face from that distant past.

The sustainable DNA of the caiman spear

Pike Caimans are a family of ray-finned fish that are also called living fossils: animals that have remained virtually unchanged for millions of years. Like the caiman, there are other animal species that still look remarkably similar to their prehistoric ancestors today. But new research shows that the caiman has stood the test of time very well. In fact, fish can call themselves the slowest-evolving animals ever – as far as science knows.

Excessive repair mechanism

In a research recently published in the magazine development Lead authors Chase Brownstein, Thomas Near, and Dan McGuigan analyzed the evolutionary pattern of 481 vertebrate species. Over millions of years, the DNA and RNA in caimans changed much more slowly than in any other group of vertebrates.

In comparison, human DNA has a mutation rate of about 0.02 mutations per million years. For amphibians, which evolve much more slowly, this is 0.007. And the caiman spear? It should be limited to only 0.00009 mutations per million years. How next? Excessive DNA repair mechanism, according to scientists. This is also interesting for us humans.

Can caiman paik cure cancer?

“If you copy DNA over and over again, errors can occur,” says co-author Solomon David. “But caimans have come up with a trick for this: every time a mutation appears, they correct it. If we can figure out how they do it — and we already have good suspicions — it could be useful in medicine.”

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If in the future we can apply the caiman's spear correction trick to the human body, it could prevent or treat diseases such as cancer – the result of runaway cell growth. “These fish were considered useless bycatch in fisheries, but now they can be incredibly valuable,” says David.

Merav Bront is a digital editor at National Geographic and writes regularly for the magazine. During her studies in human geography, she learned to place local phenomena in an international context. As a freelance journalist, she looks for the little stories behind the big stories. She writes for VPRO and the National Holocaust Museum, among others.

Megan Vasquez

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