How whales and dolphins can hold their breaths for long periods of time – the sperm whale holds the record with 90 minutes – has long been a mystery to scientists but finally, the answer has been found … they’ve got teflon proteins in their blood!
Ok, so not teflon per se, but these recent findings, reported in Science, describe how in marine mammals, a particular protein called myoglobin which binds oxygen in blood, has evolved over time to have ‘non-stick’ properties. Normally, at high concentrations, myoglobin stick together and stop working but over time, whales and dolphins have changed the make up of these proteins enabling them to pack huge amounts of oxygen into their muscles without them all clogging up. The trick? Their proteins are positively charged and therefore as with magnets, they repel each other.
Not content with solving just the one mystery, this piece of the puzzle will be hugely beneficial elsewhere. It will allow scientists to go on to estimate dive times of the modern day whale and dolphin ancestors thereby learning a lot more about evolutionary biology and importantly, it may even aid medical research into some diseases like Alzheimer’s which is caused by proteins clumping together and stopping working.
So, the next time you pick up your non-stick frying pan, give a thought to the whales and dolphins of this world – they got there first, in the name of survival and not just fried eggs!