The naked mole rat can survive oxygen deprivation for 18 minutes without suffering from adverse side effects and it do this by effectively turning into a plant.
Naked Mole Rats Switch To Fructose-based Metabolism During Oxygen Deprivation
In a new study published in the journal Science on April 21, Thomas Park, from the University of Illinois in Chicago, and colleagues found that during anoxia, or total oxygen deprivation, the burrowing rodent switches its metabolism from a glucose-based system that depends on oxygen to one that uses fructose, a mechanism that plants use.
Once oxygen becomes available once again, the animals in the experiments were found to switch back to their normal metabolism without suffering damage. The strategy helps protect the naked mole rat's sensitive organs such as the heart and the brain.
Researchers said that this metabolic trick used by the creature may have medical applications that can help patients who suffered from stroke and heart attack.
Hypoxia In Patients Who Suffered From Cardiac Events
Hypoxia, which occurs when the brain does not get enough oxygen, can happen with cardiac events and this can have serious effects since the brain needs an uninterrupted flow of oxygen to work properly.
"Patients who suffer an infarction or stroke experience irreparable damage after just a few minutes of oxygen deprivation," said study author Gary Lewin from the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association. "Theoretically, very few changes might be needed to adopt this unusual metabolism."
In an earlier study of the blind and nearly hairless animal, Park and colleagues found evidence that naked mole rats have neurons that retain immature characteristics.
Mammal fetuses initially live in the low-oxygen environment of the womb. Human infants even continue to exhibit brain resistance to being deprived of oxygen for a brief time early in life. What makes the naked mole rat different from most mammals is that it retains this ability into adulthood.
Park said that learning how the animal manages to retain the infant-like brain protection from low oxygen may help when a temporary loss of oxygen occurs in the brain, which happens in events like stroke, heart attacks, or drowning. Researchers of the new study said that the findings may one day help those who suffer from oxygen deprivation due to these events.
"It would be great if we could beef up the fructose pathway in those patients and extend the amount of time that they have to get to a health care situation," Park said.
Just like naked mole rats, humans also have the ability to use fructose as energy, albeit not nearly at the same scale. It may be possible that in the future, humans would be able to upregulate this mechanism and use it for sustaining critical tissues of oxygen.
"These results provide insight into the adaptations that this strange social rodent has to make for life underground. They also have implications for medical practice, particularly for understanding how to protect tissues from hypoxia," researchers wrote in their study.