They may not be the cuddliest mammals, but naked mole rats are looking like some of the world's most unique and incredible creatures on the planet, as new research reveals how the tiny rodents can survive even without oxygen.
Surviving Hypoxia And Anoxia
Researchers from the University of Illinois in Chicago were amazed to find yet another incredible feat from the small rodent.
To test their ability to survive low oxygen environments, researchers placed the naked mole rats in a chamber with merely 5 percent of oxygen (hypoxia), which is approximately less than a fourth of the amount of oxygen in the air we breathe. While most mice would succumb to the lack of oxygen in 15 minutes, the naked mole rat did not flinch, leading researchers to stop the test when after five hours, the naked mole rats were still standing.
In the next test, researchers placed the naked mole rats in a chamber with no oxygen at all (anoxia), a condition that would kill rodents in a minute and humans in about 10 minutes, but the naked mole rats survived for at least 18 minutes.
Though the naked mole rats stopped breathing, their hearts kept on beating, and carried on without any apparent complications once they were exposed to normal air.
Plant Sugar Strategy
Researchers believe that the naked mole rat's incredible feat is thanks to their subterranean lifestyle. Due to living underground with a colony of usually about 300 other rodents, naked mole rats have developed the ability to minimize their need for oxygen.
They have the ability to switch from one metabolic form to another when the need arises. From the usual process of relying on glucose to fuel energy, the same process that humans and other mammals adopt, naked mole rats switch to running on fructose.
Fructose, the same sugar found in fruits and plants, can fuel the naked mole rats without the need for oxygen. While humans and other mammals can process fructose in a limited manner, naked mole rats have developed the ability to allow fructose to fuel their brains, as well as their hearts.
The switch happens in cases of apoxia, where naked mole rats go into a form of suspended animation where they cease to be mobile, but their hearts and brains continue to function.
Though they may look small and fragile, naked mole rats are actually quite hardy as they have unusually long lifespans for rodents, living with humans for more than 30 years. What's more, their regular tissues are also immune to tumor formation thanks to a polysaccharide called hyaluronan.
The latest findings may help medical professionals better understand and study the possibility of minimizing the damages of hypoxia and anoxia to human cells.