The genome of Lonesome George could unlock the secret of ageing

  Last updated December 7, 2018 at 11:21 am


Giant tortoise DNA gives hints to cancer resistance and ageing.

Last of the line: Lonesome George, the Galapagos giant tortoise, pictured before his death in 2012. Credit: Andres Court/Getty Images

Giant tortoises may grow big and old and ward off cancer because of their genes, a new study suggests.

An international research team that included Flinders University in Adelaide, has discovered several variants in tortoise genomes that potentially affect six of the nine hallmarks of ageing. None of the variants has been previously associated with the ageing process.

They also found that giant tortoises have several expanded tumour suppressor genes, as well as alterations in two genes which are known to contribute to cancer.

This was something of a celebrity-tinged genome sequencing, because one of the two tortoises studied was the legendary Lonesome George, the last member of the Galapagos giant tortoise species from Pinta Island (Chelonoidis abingdoni). The other was an Aldabrachelys gigantea from the island of Aldabra in the Seychelles.

The researchers, who were drawn from 13 different organisations including the Galapagos National Park Service in Ecuador, compared the genomes of the two tortoises with those of other species, including humans.

They hope their findings, which are published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, will open fresh research avenues that could lead to an improved understanding of the tortoises’ longevity and support conservation efforts.

“Giant tortoises are amongst the longest living animals and therefore must have evolved mechanisms for reducing their risk of developing cancer,” says co-author Luciano Beheregaray, from Flinders University. “Because of that they provide an excellent model to study longevity and age-related diseases.”

Lonesome George was discovered in 1971 and from then on lived under protection at the Tortoise Centre on Santa Cruz in the Galapagos. He died of natural causes in 2012 at the age of 101 or 102 as the last of his species.

The search for a suitable mate proved forever fruitless, but that’s not how he got his name. The US media, which was fascinated by his discovery, gave him the same nickname as a then prominent, and now late, TV comedian, George Gobel.


Warmer climates are turning green sea turtles female

Why don’t elephants get cancer as often as others?

Longevity is in the genes (for trees)

Education Resource

The genome of Lonesome George could unlock the secret of ageing

About the Author

Nick Carne
Nick Carne is the Editorial Manager for the Royal Institution of Australia.

Published By

Cosmos is a quarterly science magazine. We aim to inspire curiosity in ‘The Science of Everything’ and make the world of science accessible to everyone.

At Cosmos, we deliver the latest in science with beautiful pictures, clear explanations of the latest discoveries and breakthroughs and great writing.

Winner of 47 awards for high-quality journalism and design, Cosmos is a print magazine, online digital edition updated daily, a daily and weekly e-Newsletter and educational resource with custom, curriculum-mapped lessons for years 7 to 10.

Featured Videos

Fitting natural water treatment processes back into the landscape
Protecting the Great Barrier Reef at the National Sea Simulator