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Lonesome George’s genes are helping scientists learn about human health and ageing

Elisa Black, December 6, 2018 7:56AM The Advertiser

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A Galapagos tortoise. Picture: iStock media_cameraA Galapagos tortoise. Picture: iStock


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The last Galapagos tortoise of his species, Lonesome George, could reveal the secret to long life and good health.

An international team, including researchers from Flinders University in South Australia, has studied his genes* to try to understand the species’ ability to live up to 200 years and fight cancer.

Lonesome George, the last known individual of the Pinta Island Tortoise, subspecies Geochelone nigra abingdoni, walks around Galapagos National Park's breeding center in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz island, in the Galapagos Archipelago, on April 19, 2012. Lonesome George died and left the world one subspecies poorer. The only remaining Pinta Island giant tortoise and celebrated symbol of conservation efforts in the Galapagos Islands passed away Sunday with no known offspring, the Galapagos National Park in Ecuador said in a statement. Estimated to be more than 100 years old, the creature's cause of death remains unclear and a necropsy is planned.  AFP PHOTO/RODRIGO BUENDIA media_cameraLonesome George, the last known Pinta Island Tortoise, subspecies of the Galapagos giant tortoise species. This photo was taken a few weeks before he died. Picture: AFP

George died in 2012, aged about 101-102. When he was alive, he was known as the rarest creature on Earth. He was the last member of the Galapagos giant tortoise species from Pinta Island, which is one of the Galápagos Islands.

Supplied Editorial media_cameraSir David Attenborough filming Lonesome George just days before his death in 2012.

Giant tortoises and humans share more than 90 per cent of their DNA, which is the information in genes.

The researchers also sequenced the genome — which is studying and mapping the genes — of a giant tortoise from the island of Aldabra in the Seychelles and compared both genomes with those of other species, including humans.

The team studied more than 3000 genes thought to be possibly involved in cancer and ageing and identified several variants* in the tortoise genomes that could affect six of the nine signs of ageing.

None of these gene variants have ever before been linked to the ageing process, so this discovery opens fresh research directions, which could lead to an improved understanding of the tortoises’ longevity*.

VIDEO: Hugo is one of a different species of Galapagos tortoises. He lives at Australian Reptile Park in NSW and this was his annual weight check in July

Giant tortoises are not cancer-free, but along with several reptiles, they have very low rates of the disease. The study found that giant tortoises have several expanded genes that suppress* cancer tumours*, as well as alterations in two genes that are known to contribute to cancer.

Further studies are needed to understand if these features are actually associated with suppressing cancer.

The research is published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

VIDEO: This is Hugo celebrating his 68th birthday in September


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  • genes: carries the information about how you look and your body functions that is passed from parent to child; genes are made up of DNA
  • variants: a version that is a bit different
  • longevity: long life



  1. Why did the researchers study George’s genes?
  2. How old was George when he died?
  3. Are there other giant tortoises on other Galápagos Islands?
  4. How many genes did they study?
  5. Do these tortoises ever get cancer?

1. Write a tribute
A tribute, or obituary, is something that is written about someone after they have died. It includes their story, important things about them and why we should remember them. Write a tribute for Lonesome George.

Time: Allow 20 minutes
Curriculum Links: English, Science, Health and Physical Education

2. Extension
In the story you have read that scientists say that there are nine signs of ageing. What do you think they are? Write a list of nine signs of ageing. Next to each sign, write suggestions of things that we can do to help slow it down or to keep this healthy.

Time: Allow 25 minutes
Curriculum Links: English, Health and Physical Education

After reading the article, with a partner, highlight as many connectives as you can find in pink. Discuss if these are being used as conjunctions, or to join ideas and create flow.

HAVE YOUR SAY: Have you heard of the Galápagos Islands? Share what you know or would like to know.
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking.

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