June 25, 2021

Jillian Wisse (Duke University)

Deep breaths: how whale stress can lead to hypoxia treatments for humans

Spring 2021 Graduate Student Award in Innovative Evolutionary Medicine


Marine mammals have adapted to hold their breath for long periods while diving beneath the ocean surface. Deep-divers, like the Cuvier’s beaked whale, are especially efficient at conserving oxygen during dives and have genetic tools for protecting themselves from the dangers of low oxygen in the body, also called hypoxia. Humans are not as well-adapted to hypoxia, which can lead to organ damage and long-term health consequences. Because hypoxia is closely linked to inflammation, anti-inflammatories, like glucocorticoids, are being explored as potential hypoxia treatments, but the molecular tradeoffs between glucocorticoids and hypoxia are poorly understood. Glucocorticoids are released in the body during chronic stress, which is an increasing health concern for both humans and whales. In this study, we will investigate the impact of stress on hypoxia resilience by exposing beaked whale cell cultures to hypoxia and hydrocortisone, an important glucocorticoid. By studying the adaptations of whales to hypoxia and the role of stress, we can help make progress toward clinical prevention and treatment of hypoxia in humans.