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CoastLine: Elephant Seal Biology May Reveal New Medical Uses For Carbon Monoxide

Jan Roletto / Wikimedia Commons
Male and female Elephant Seals

One carbon, one oxygen.  Carbon monoxide is sometimes called "the silent killer" because the gas is odorless, colorless, and fatal to humans at high levels.  But scientists are beginning to discover that used in moderation, there could be health benefits.  

Among the potential benefits -- lessening the residual effects of heart attack and stroke, and aiding in tissue recovery after organ transplants.

One of the sources for these medical breakthroughs:  deep-diving sea mammals. Elephant seals, those creatures with the large proboscis, can weigh up to 4 1/2 tons, and they can stay underwater for up  to two hours.  Only Cuvier beaked whales and sperm whales edge out this animal’s capacity for holding its breath.

Elephant seals and Weddell seals are the only animals scientists have confirmed as having elevated levels of carbon monoxide in their bodies. One of the questions scientists are now asking is whether carbon monoxide serves as a protective agent during their deep dives, shutting off oxygen to non-essential organs. They’re also exploring which other animals have higher levels of CO.   Among the targets of study are deep-diving reptiles such as Leatherback Turtles, marine iguanas in the Galapagos, sea lions, dolphins, and whales.  

Comparative Physiologist Michael Tift is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology and Marine Biology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.  He recently won a $957,056 grant from the National Science Foundation to answer some of these questions and potentially apply the answers to medicine -- both human and veterinary.