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Elephant seals may offer clues about beneficial uses of carbon monoxide

northern-elephant-seal-911602I could watch elephant seals all day. Not exaggerating — I love their hefty flops, raucous chatter and of course, the males' bizarre, huge noses. So when I spotted the headline, "What Elephant Seals Can Tell Us About Using Carbon Monoxide to Heal," I clicked — instantly.

Turns out most marine mammals, including my beloved elephant seals, have naturally high levels of carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide is nasty stuff: an odorless gas that can leave you unconscious, or dead, before you know what happened. But, researchers have learned that in smaller doses, carbon monoxide has therapeutic uses, such as for inflammation or vascular disease.

And now, a team based at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, is investigating the carbon monoxide levels of a variety of marine mammals, including elephant seals, and specifically studying the role carbon monoxide plays in a phenomenon called ischemia-reperfusion. The article explains:

Ischemia is when blood flow to tissues is reduced and reperfusion is when blood flow returns to those tissues. Diving animals regularly reduce blood flow to specific tissues while holding their breath in order to preserve oxygenated blood for the brain and heart. In people, making tissues ischemic can be highly damaging — it is what causes permanent damage to the heart after a heart attack, for example — but elephant seals appear to resist this damage, and the researcher thinks carbon monoxide could help explain why.

Graduate student Michael Tift hopes to pinpoint carbon monoxide's role in future studies. He clarifies:

If we can understand what levels of carbon monoxide offer the most benefit to the animal, and how the animals maintain these therapeutic levels, there is hope that we can use this information to assist in treating certain injuries and pathologies.

Previously: Stanford researchers discover new bacteria in dolphins, Annoying anemones shed light on coral reef biology and Researchers: Sea lions develop a form of epilepsy similar to that of humans
Photo by skeeze

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