Whale Sharks Studied Using Metabolomics
November 17, 2012

Metabolomics Can Help Determine Overall Health Of Whale Sharks

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

The metabolite homarine is a useful indicator of the health status of whale sharks, according to new research from experts at the Georgia Aquarium and the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech).

Dr. Alistair Dove, the Director of Research & Conservation at Georgia Aquarium and an adjunct professor at Georgia Tech, and colleagues, discovered that the concentration of homarine in the serum was a major difference between healthy and unhealthy whale sharks. That makes it a useful biomarker of the wellbeing for the Rhincodon typus, the Atlanta-based aquarium announced on Thursday.

Their findings have been published in the journal PLOS One, and according to the aquarium's statement, they are "especially significant to the veterinary science community because the study documents the results of a rare opportunity to collect and analyze blood from whale sharks." The paper also comprises the only work yet carried out on biochemistry of the world´s largest fish.

"This research and its resulting findings are vitally important to ensuring“¦ the scientific community´s care, knowledge, and understanding of not only whale sharks, but similar species of sharks and rays," added Dr. Greg Bossart, Senior Vice President of Animal Health, Research & Conservation and Chief Veterinary Officer at Georgia Aquarium. "The publishing of this clinical research provides a greater opportunity for scientists and zoological professionals to understand the Animals in our care and can be used to help wild populations, which puts us ahead of the curve in the integrated understanding of animal biology."

Previous research into the issue had suggested that the blood chemistry tests ordinarily used by veterinarians were not as useful with whale sharks, which are the world's largest type of fish, the scientists said. That's because those tests were specifically designed for mammals, and because in comparison, less is known about the blood of sharks and other similar creatures.

In an attempt to learn more about the biochemistry of whale sharks, Dr. Dove and his team examined the metabolic compositions of the six of them that call the Georgia Aquarium home. By using a group of techniques known as metabolomics, they were able to determine what chemical compounds the sharks' blood contained, even though they didn't know beforehand what those chemicals might be.

“It is vitally important for us to continue to learn how to best support the whale sharks in our care,” Dove said. “We began the study by asking ourselves, ℠What should we be looking for in whale shark serum?´ and ℠What compounds in serum might best indicate the health status of whale sharks?´”

"Not only did the study determine that metabolic profiles of unhealthy whale sharks were markedly different than those of healthy sharks in general and particularly the different levels of homarine, but the research team also identified more than 25 other compounds that differed in concentration based on the health of the individual," the researchers explained.

Those findings "will help scientists and veterinarians to better understand the biology of whale sharks in their natural setting, and by homology, the biology of other shark and ray species that may be similar," they added. "Further, data compiled in the research will provide a reference library about whale shark biochemistry that can be consulted in future studies and importantly, adds new knowledge that will be useful to those who care for sharks and rays on a daily basis."

Joining Dr. Dove on the team were Dr. Johannes Leisen, research scientist; Dr. Manshi Zhou, post-doctoral candidate; Dr. Jonathan Byrne, post-doctoral candidate; Krista Lim-Hing, student; Dr. Leslie Gelbaum, Dr. Mark Viant, Dr. Julia Kubanek, and Dr. Facundo Fernandez, all of Georgia Tech, as well as Georgia Aquarium research technician Harry D. Webb. Their research took three years to develop.