Transcriptome analysis reveals a high aerobic capacity in the whale brain
The brain of diving mammals is repeatedly exposed to low oxygen conditions (hypoxia) that would have caused severe damage to most terrestrial mammals. Some whales may dive for >2 h with their brain remaining active. Many of the physiological adaptations of whales to diving have been investigated, but little is known about the molecular mechanisms that enable their brain to survive sometimes prolonged periods of hypoxia. Here, we have used an RNA-Seq approach to compare the mRNA levels in the brains of whales with those of cattle, which serves as a terrestrial relative. We sequenced the transcriptomes of the brains from cattle (Bos taurus), killer whale (Orcinus orca), and long-finned pilot whale (Globicephala melas). Further, the brain transcriptomes of cattle, minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) and bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus), which were available in the databases, were included. We found a high expression of genes related to oxidative phosphorylation and the respiratory electron chain in the whale brains. In the visual cortex of whales, transcripts related to the detoxification of reactive oxygen species were more highly expressed than in the visual cortex of cattle. These findings indicate a high oxidative capacity in the whale brain that might help to maintain aerobic metabolism in periods of reduced oxygen availability during dives.