Colorado State University Biology Professor to Study Regeneration of Seal Cells, How Seals Deliver Oxygen to Muscles

Note to Reporters: Photos of the seals that Shane Kanatous studies are available with the news release at

Colorado State University biologist Shane Kanatous runs the only laboratory in the world that has isolated and grown primary muscle cells of Weddell seals. This summer, with seed money from the Office of Naval Research, he will set out to prove he can generate a similar primary muscle cell line from California’s northern elephant seals – all in the name of helping understand the unique physiology of underwater mammals.

Kanatous studies anatomical changes that allow seals to exercise while holding their breath. A protein called myoglobin allows the seals to store and supply oxygen to skeletal muscles even while swimming under water. That pathway could be mimicked to help humans, particularly people with hearts that struggle to deliver oxygen to heart and skeletal muscles, Kanatous said.

“Can we understand what’s being stimulated in this pathway? What are the genetics behind it? These animals have overcome something that is extremely detrimental to other air-breathing mammals including ourselves– they can swim under water for about two hours and their muscles keep working because their muscles hold oxygen,” he said.

Kanatous also studies how cells respond to different fat concentrations because the production of myoglobin has been connected to fat in the seals, and just recently his lab has found that fat supplementation stimulates myoglobin in mouse muscle cells as well. He will return to Santa Cruz, Calif., this summer to study elephant seals with the help of the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Primary cells such as those studied by Kanatous have a short shelf life and are not commonly regenerated. For example, HeLa cells that have been used to help address human viruses and diseases over decades are named after Henrietta Lacks, a poor Southern tobacco farmer whose bodily cells would become one of the most significant tools in modern medicine. Her tissue sample astonished scientists with its ability to survive and thrive in laboratory settings. To date, more than 50 million metric tons of HeLa cells have been reproduced for the use of researchers around the globe.