Top Story: February 19, 2010

Dolphins and Diabetes

Cayusa, Creative Commons

Dolphins are healthy diabetics.

That’s what Stephanie Venn-Watson announced at the AAAS Meeting today.

Dr. Venn-Watson of the National Marine Mammal Foundation is the vet for a large group of naval dolphins here in San Diego. These dolphins “work” for the US Navy, detecting objects in the oceans—from missing persons to mines.

Several years ago, she was conducting routine blood tests on her subjects. As she compared the blood values of dolphins who fasted overnight to dolphins that were recently fed, she discovered something truly amazing. “Fasted dolphins had a series of changes in serum chemistries that matched those of people with diabetes. Interestingly, these same dolphins switched back to a non-diabetic profile after eating. There appears to be a switch that dolphins use to turn a diabetes-like state on and off.”

Diabetes seems to be a naturally healthy state for dolphins—probably as an adaptation to their diets. As big-brained mammals, they need sugar, but their diet consists entirely of fish—high in protein, but low in sugar. According to Dr. Venn-Watson, “The dolphins have found a way to use fish-protein diets to generate and control the glucose they need.”

Can this new understanding help people who have diabetes? It’s comparative genomics time! (To learn more about the Academy’s involvement in the comparative genomics field, click here.) Dr. Venn-Watson is hoping to take what she’s learned and apply it to humans. “Gene-based dolphin research could lead to a better understanding of how a fasting switch, which may be uncontrolled in some people with diabetes, can be controlled using the dolphin model. Its potential application to treat diabetes is enticing.”

Creative Commons image by Cayusa

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