Naked mole rats use a plant strategy to survive in low oxygen conditions

Researchers discovered how naked mole rats could survive when they experience oxygen deprivation in their underground burrows. They use a strategy typical for plants, which implies switching to a sugar fructose-based metabolism. These findings might provide solutions for people who suffer from strokes or heart attacks.

Being able to survive with low oxygen

These naked mole rats are usually found in the subterranean areas beneath the East African deserts. Sometimes, the oxygen in their underground shelters becomes scarce, so they had to find a way to overcome this crisis.

Their solution is switching their type of metabolism to one which is typical of plants and is rarely seen in mammals. Usually, mammals perform glucose metabolism. Naked mole rats resort to a metabolism based on sugar fructose, which helps them survive in extreme conditions.

The naked mole-rat is the only animal which performs this type of plant metabolism, and surprised the researchers with its uniqueness. Also, this strategy inspired the scientists, as it could help in the design of therapies for people who had suffered strokes.

These strokes usually cause a lot of damage to the brain, as the oxygen can no longer reach it. Thus, researchers might learn from naked mole rats and find a way to provide oxygen to the brain even after suffering such damage.

Naked mole rats are amazing animals

Naked mole rats are able to survive for 18 minutes without oxygen. Also, they can stay up to five hours in an environment low on oxygen. This is extreme, as it would take only a few minutes for a person to die in such conditions.

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These animals build complex underground communities gathering around 300 members. Their social structure resembles that of an insect colony, with a breeding queen and workers. The tunnels they live in sometimes get a little overcrowded, so they are deprived of oxygen quite often.

Living in such extreme conditions was the factor which drove their unusual evolution. Thomas Park, one of the authors of the study and a neurobiologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, explained that they had millions of years to discover how to survive in low oxygen environments.

When they encounter such conditions, they become comatose and start releasing fructose into their blood. This type of metabolism does not require oxygen, and the blood can circulate and fuel their vital organs.

These amazing animals have always amazed scientists, as they are so atypical and do not resemble the majority of mammals. Now, discovering how they adapted to the environment they live in could have an important application in human medicine. The research was published in the journal Science and it can be found here.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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