How naked mole rats' 'plant-like' behaviour to avoid oxygen starvation could help stroke patients
Naked mole rats survive oxygen starvation by behaving like a plant, researchers have found.
This new discovery is yet another quirk to one of the world’s weirdest mammals – and scientists say understanding how this mechanism works could open the door to new treatments for heart attacks and strokes.
What are naked mole rats?
Hailing from Africa, they’re small hairless rodents that dwell underground in complex burrows. They have a variety of quirks which separate them from other mammals.
They are virtually cold-blooded and the only mammal with a social structure similar to that of ants and termites. Each colony has a female queen that gives birth to young, a small number of breeding males, and numerous sterile workers.
Naked mole rats are also known to live decades longer than any other rodents, can resist getting cancer and are impervious to many types of pain.
What’s special about this discovery?
An international team of scientists has discovered the rodents can survive for at least five hours in low-oxygen conditions which would kill a human in minutes.
They pull off this feat by releasing fructose, a form of sugar, into their bloodstream and burning it to generate energy without oxygen – using a metabolic pathway normally seen in plants.
In tests the naked mole rats were totally starved of oxygen, but managed to survive for up to 18 minutes in a state of suspended animation with no lasting ill-effects. Mice perished in just 20 seconds under the same conditions.
“The naked mole rat has simply rearranged some basic building-blocks of metabolism to make it super-tolerant to low oxygen conditions,” said study lead Professor Thomas Park, from the University of Illinois in Chicago.
Why might it be important to humans?
The naked mole rat’s ability to do without oxygen is thought to be an adaptation to living in airless super-crowded burrows packed with hundreds of colony-mates – but understanding it could have health benefits for humans.
The study’s findings, published in the journal Science, could help researchers devise new methods for preventing tissue damage caused by oxygen deprivation heart attack or stroke.
“Our work is the first evidence that a mammal switches to fructose as a fuel,” said German co-author Professor Gary Lewin, from the Max Delbruck Centre for Molecular Medicine in Berlin. “Patients who suffer an infarction (heart attack) or stroke experience irreparable damage after just a few minutes of oxygen deprivation.”