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How Helping US Navy Dolphins Is Contributing To Healthy Aging In Humans

The first essential fatty acid discovered in over 90 years!


Dr. Beccy Corkill

Beccy is a custom content producer who holds a PhD in Biological Science, a Master’s in Parasites and Disease Vectors, and a Bachelor’s in Human Biology and Forensic Science.

Custom Content Manager

happy smiley dolphin in a blue ocean

Let’s dive into the science! 

Image credit: Cic73 / 

You think of essential fatty acids and you may think of omega-3 or omega-6, but there is a new kid on the block, and it was discovered while helping US Navy dolphins.

These dolphins are fascinating creatures. They have been taught to wear cameras so marine biologists can take a peek at various behaviors, such as how they hunt and how they learn to find and rescue endangered vaquita porpoises. As such, there is always a need to improve our relationship with our marine friends and to help them live healthier lives. 

Enter Dr Stephanie Venn-Watson, a veterinary epidemiologist who previously worked for the World Health Organization (WHO). Venn-Watson and her team noticed that some older Navy dolphins were developing age-related conditions, while others were not. For example, they found that around one in three dolphins developed fatty liver disease – incidentally, this is the same ratio in humans. 

Clearly, something interesting was going on, but what? Venn-Watson and her team decided to investigate further.

They compared both healthy aging dolphins with their counterparts through a metabolomic study – which looks at the thousands of molecules in an organism's body to see how they work. 

This research identified 100 different molecules that predicted the healthiest dolphins – the one that came out on top was C15:0. 

What is C15:0?

C15:0 is also known as pentadecanoic acid and is an odd-chain fatty acid. Fatty acids are incredibly important in every cell in the body, mainly because they are a key component of a lipid bilayer membrane. This is a flat sheet of lipid molecules that forms a barrier around cells, offering protection and a gateway to allow the good stuff in and out, also they contain fatty acids. 

This means fatty acids are essential in: 

  • Cellular membrane stability
  • Signaling in and between cells
  • Activating brain receptors that regulate mood, immunity, metabolism, and sleep

Most fatty acids are acquired through diet, and C15:0 is no exception. In the wild, dolphins naturally acquire this fatty acid from the skin and heads of fish… delicious, we know. 

When the researchers gave the dolphins that were less healthy aging a diet higher in fish-based C15:0, they got better. 

Is C15:0 also important to humans?

Through additional investigation, it was found that humans may also be C15:0 deficient. Many studies have shown that when a person has lower C15:0 dietary intake and blood concentrations, there is a higher mortality and poorer physiological state.

Now, we are not saying that humans need to go around eating the skin and heads of fish; to most, that is not an ideal meal at the end of the day.  For us, this source of fatty acid comes from whole-fat cow’s milk and butter. 

Unfortunately for humans, there has been an evolution in the way we eat our food in recent times, especially in the US. In 1977, congress decided to recommend drastically reduced dietary intake of saturated fats by almost four-fold, with the intention of improving population health.

Incidentally, in the US, over the last few decades, there has been an increase in type 2 diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). One hypothesis is that C15:0 deficiencies are driving pandemic heart disease, diabetes, and chronic illness. 

What does the research say?

Venn-Watson’s team conducted many different studies to help demonstrate that C15:0 was also a beneficial fatty acid for humans. In fact, it’s the first essential fatty acid discovered in 90 years. 

Over eight different peer-reviewed studies, they concluded that: 

  • Through NAFLD human cell system experiments there is a dose-dependent relationship between C15:0 and anti-inflammatory and antifibrotic properties 
  • In experimental models of NAFLD, the administration of daily oral C15:0 treatment effectively halted the progression of severe liver fibrosis
  • C15:0 demonstrated significant liver-protective advantages, safeguarding cell membranes from damage

It seems that other researchers also agree with the potential beneficial properties of C15:0, as today, there are over 50 peer-reviewed papers from independent and different institutions highlighting the value of this fatty acid.

In one study, they found that plasma C15:0 and Iso-C17:0 were inversely associated with liver fat in 237 children. Another study found that higher C15:0 was linked to a lower risk of severe NAFLD. Another study supported that C15:0 is a key beneficial fatty acid in dairy fat in models of NAFLD/NASH. 

Along with all this, there is currently an ongoing clinical trial of C15:0 supplementation by an independent research group. Researchers are looking into C15:0 supplements in young adults who are at risk of metabolic syndrome and fatty liver disease. Results are expected early next year.  

“While global health has been declining at an alarming rate, studies are increasingly supporting that we have a new and tangible hope – the ability to readily replenish our C15:0 levels, restore aspects of long-term health, and extend longevity for all,” Dr Stephanie Venn-Watson, Co-founder and CEO of Seraphina Therapeutics, told IFLScience. 

Other benefits of C15:0 include improving cellular stability by 80 percent by strengthening the cell membranes.

Why do humans need supplements – why not just diet?

Unfortunately for humans, we cannot just eat our way to getting the recommended amounts of C15:0. Firstly, for people who drink plant-based milk, these products do not contain any C15:0. Secondly, if people want to drink whole-fat cow’s milk, the amount is dependent on what the cow eats themselves: different types of grasses that cows munch on can determine the levels of C15:0 it contains. Finally, C15:0 levels naturally decline with age, so the risk of deficiencies increases as someone (both humans and dolphins) gets older. 

Overall, C15:0 could be important for humans in terms of minimizing aging risks – and taking it in supplement form seems to be most effective. 

As such, Venn-Watson and her team have now created a supplement called Fatty15. This product only contains C15:0. 

If you want to find out more about the story of C15:0, click here.

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