Assessing the health of marine mammal sentinel species is crucial to understanding the impacts of environmental perturbations on marine ecosystems and human health. In Arctic regions, beluga whales, Delphinapterus leucas, are upper level predators that may serve as a sentinel species, potentially forecasting impacts on human health. While gene expression profiling from blood transcriptomes has widely been used to assess health status and environmental exposures in human and veterinary medicine, its use in wildlife has been limited due to the lack of available genomes and baseline data.
To this end researchers from the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science constructed the first beluga whale blood transcriptome de novo from samples collected during annual health assessments of the healthy Bristol Bay, AK stock during 2012-2014 to establish baseline information on the content and variation of the beluga whale blood transcriptome. The Trinity transcriptome assembly from beluga was comprised of 91,325 transcripts that represented a wide array of cellular functions and processes and was extremely similar in content to the blood transcriptome of another cetacean, the bottlenose dolphin. Expression of hemoglobin transcripts was much lower in beluga (25.6% of TPM, transcripts per million) than has been observed in many other mammals. A T12A amino acid substitution in the HBB sequence of beluga whales, but not bottlenose dolphins, was identified and may play a role in low temperature adaptation. The beluga blood transcriptome was extremely stable between sex and year, with no apparent clustering of samples by principle components analysis and <4% of genes differentially expressed (EBseq, FDR<0.05). While the impacts of season, sexual maturity, disease, and geography on the beluga blood transcriptome must be established, the presence of transcripts involved in stress, detoxification, and immune functions indicate that blood gene expression analyses may provide information on health status and exposure. This study provides a wealth of transcriptomic data on beluga whales and provides a sizeable pool of preliminary data for comparison with other studies in beluga whale.