Transplantation of hypoxia in marine mammals to COVID-19

News-Medical talks to Professor Terrie Williams about how looking at diving physiology that allows marine mammals to withstand low oxygen conditions can improve our understanding of the effects of COVID-19.

porpoiseImage credit: Craig Lambert Photography /

What prompted you to begin this research?

My lab has been studying mammalian metabolism and hypoxia for over three decades, working with human triathletes as well as dolphins, narwhals, lions, bears, and more. In an attempt to answer the question ‘How do marine mammals hold their breath for so long? ’, We have found that susceptibility to hypoxia varies greatly among animals.

A deep dual-fuel whale can hold its breath for more than three hours compared to a few minutes for humans! Unfortunately, people are very vulnerable to thin air in the absence of oxygen – which led me to wonder about the potential effects of hypoxia reported for COVID-19 patients.

What are the physiological changes that will enable marine mammals to tolerate low oxygen levels??

The list seems to be endless for marine mammals. This work has involved national and international scientists for decades, and we are still finding new ways in which marine mammals can protect their wings when oxygen is not available. .

I posted a partial record of what was found in our paper to make readers aware of the amazing series of hypoxia-related changes found in seals and whales. It begins by storing oxygen on board in oxygen-sensitive cigarettes, specifically the brain and locomotor and cartilage muscles.

Marine mammals have up to 10 times the amount of oxygen-carrying myoglobin in their muscles compared to a dog or a human.

But there is much more, for example, improved buffering abilities if anaerobic nappies, spleens that can capture oxygen red blood cells, and diving responses to reduce stressful metabolic demands all help to avoid it. damage associated with hypoxia. It is amazing, and a testament to what is needed to protect the most vital organs of the body from oxygen deprivation.

What is Krogh’s principle and why is it relevant here?

August Krogh was a Danish scientist who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine just 100 years ago. He worked on sensitive and respiratory pathology, especially the delivery of oxygen to nappies. He was also interested in how the physiological changes of model animals could help us understand basic biological principles for humans.

The Principal Krogh states “for such a large number of problems there will be a choice of animal, or a few such animals, which can be properly examined.” It is the basis of Comparative Geology. I used this powerful philosophy of scientific study and applied it to the many animal species I have researched over the years.

August Krogh is one of my scientific heroes, and it is the scientific shoulders that I stand on. To honor him on the anniversary of his Nobel Prize, there were editors Biochemistry and Comparative Geology we have created a special edition of which our paper on hypoxia is a part. Instead of just writing a review about hypoxia, my co-author and I decided to use Principal Krogh to find out what animals could tell us about hypoxia that is still associated with COVID- 19.

Why is hypoxia so important in COVID-19?

Scientists are learning as much about the effects of hypoxia as the pandemic progresses. What is emerging is that hypoxia – lack of oxygen – is at the heart of many of the symptoms first seen by first responders in patients. Brain smoke, COVID toes, fatigue, as well as heart, brain and lung damage are all features of oxygen deprivation at the root.

The devices may not yet have been worked out. Direct damage to the lungs by the virus, inflammatory reaction of the body, and microbiological damage appear to contribute to the difficulty of oxygen delivery in patients.

The bottom line, however, is that essential nappies may lack oxygen. That is a cause for concern as hypoxia lacks immunity in humans compared to other animals such as deep-diving marine mammals.

How might this research benefit the treatment and understanding of COVID-19 patients?

This response relies on some very basic psychological principles for body tissues. Some tissues, especially the mammalian brain and heart, are particularly sensitive to oxygen. This is a problem because they are also the most vital organs in our bodies.

Figure 4 in our paper addresses this, and in my view, is the most important picture in our review. It says two very important things that people need to understand.

Figure 4 from the review article ‘Physical stability in diving mammals: Perspectives on hypoxia protection using the Krogh principle to understand the symptoms of COVID-19’. Image Credit: Williams and Davis (2020)

First, damage to the heart and brain occurs very quickly when oxygen is cut off; permanent damage to cells occurs within minutes.

Second, so far, science and doctors they cannot produce new heart cells or brain cells if damaged. That was the time for me to wake up to COVID-19 infection. Unlike a cold or flu, could this disease, due to its effect on the oxygen pathway, cause permanent organ damage even if the patient were alive? Are we as strong as a dolphin or a dive seal? Over time, other cells may be able to take on the role of damaged cells, but will 100% function ever be achieved? We are just beginning to see the effects now.

What does your research suggest about COVID-19 patients suffering from symptoms long after the initial infection?

Recent studies are now addressing the problems of the “long haulers”, people who cannot overcome the effects of the original disease. It is often athletes who say they can not just return to their original level of training or ability.

The result was my second wake-up call about the virus. If COVID-19 can cause permanent damage to the oxygen pathway that goes from the lungs to the heart to an athlete’s muscles, will it harm elite performance?

Just this weekend Key County Johnson, a college basketball player for the Florida Gators, fell on the court. He is currently in a medically induced coma. His team, family, school and doctors are all questioning whether the impact of COVID-19 over the summer is a contributing factor. The hypoxia vulnerabilities we mentioned in our card cells may offer clues.

For most of us, we just want to be able to run, swim, bike, play basketball, and feel good. For an Olympic or professional sports athlete, the difference between a gold or silver medal or a competition season is calculated on the basis of 1/100th of seconds. Will previous COVID infection be a limiting factor?

What about the brain and brain function; will we have the ability to get over the fog and think creatively or critically? Years from now, we may have answers. But for now, those questions keep me up at night and make me wear a mask.

What important things can the public gain from your research?

Obviously there is a lot of debate about masks, social distance, locks, and vaccines these days. It certainly affects everyone, especially since not everyone has all the answers and everything happens too fast with this growing disease.

To the best of our knowledge, the important, conservative thing is to stay safe in the best possible way. It would be so hard to look back years later and find out that an athlete missed their big opportunity or that a promising scientific thinker lost his Nobel Prize as a result short-term and long-term predation of this disease.

What are the next steps for your research?

Like August Krogh, I will continue to work with the animals – they have told me so much about how biology works.

Where can readers find out more?

Learn more about Terrie’s work on her website.

Read the full review article here.

About Professor Terrie Williams

Professor Terrie Williams

Terrie M. Williams is a comparative physicist with 35 years of research experience in the anatomy of terrestrial and aquatic mammals such as African lions, sea otters, narwhals, polar bears, and Weddell seals.

As a Professor at the University of California- Santa Cruz, she leads the Integrative and Comparative Energetics Lab (ICE) and the Marine Mammal Psychology Project. Her exploration tours are taken from the polar regions of the Arctic and Antarctic as well as African savannahs and the mountainous coast of California.

She developed many of the instruments used in her studies including submarine heart rate microprocessors to monitor dolphin and whale diving responses while eating at sea, and the SMART (Gender Movement, Acceleration, and Research Study) collar that combines terrestrial carnivorous energy and behavior hunting over diverse landscapes.

Terrie and her students struggle to understand the ecological significance of large mammals and the physiological changes necessary for the survival of species in an ever-changing world as a result of human influences. On her latest project, she is using her heart rate monitors on narwhals and is also measuring their thermal biology using infrared technology. Her main goal is to understand how the presence of humans can interfere with the normal daily use of these amazing whales.

Dedicated to solving challenges faced by under-represented groups in the sciences it has a particular interest in bringing site research to students. She has written several popular books, including The Odyssey of KP2, about her efforts to preserve endangered Hawaiian monk seals that won the 2012 AAAS / Subaru Award for Science Book and Award Film (Young Adult Science Books).