Naked mole rats are so sociable they evolved the ability to survive without oxygen

Introduction:

Naked mole rats live in underground burrows with a lot of friends.  In this environment, oxygen can be scarce, which is a serious problem for us mammals.  However, the tiny naked mole rat can cope where we would suffer brain damage or die.

Background:

a naked mole rat
Figure 1: An angry female naked mole rat.
Credit: Buffenstein/Barshop Institute/UTHSCSA Licence: CC2.0.

Naked mole rats are famous for their homeliness (Figure 1).  They live in underground burrows in colonies that contain hundreds of individuals.  And they are the only known mammalian thermoconformer.  This means that they don’t self-regulate their body temperature.  They just allow their temperature to conform to the environment like a cold-blooded reptile.

Naked mole rats are super for a lot of reasons.  They are super ugly.  They’re nearly immune to cancer.  They have the most old-man cuteness of any creature in the animal kingdom.  They are impervious to some forms of pain (Omerbašić et al., 2016).  And now, new research reveals that they can tolerate extreme oxygen deprivation (Park et al., 2017).

How naked mole rats survive in low oxygen:

Mammals generate energy through glycolysis.  Glycolysis requires glucose and oxygen and when we are deprived of this essential element our brain cells suffer and die.  This is why victims of heart attack or stroke often suffer brain damage.

However, new research reveals that naked mole rats can survive for more than 18 minutes without any oxygen (Park et al., 2017).  They manage this by switching to an alternative mode of energy production that allows fructose to be used instead of glucose.

Conclusion:

a naked mole rat with its legs outstretched
Figure 2: Photographic evidence that naked mole rats like to party. License: CC2.0.

Naked mole rats can switch their method of energy production from glucose-based to fructose-based when no oxygen is available.  Like how a breathtarian switches from ingesting air to scarfing down cheeseburgers when no one is watching.  Natural selection likely selected this trait because naked mole rats are extremely sociable and like to party (Figure 2).

This research seems a bit random and obscure until we consider what future applications it may have.  The alternative energy-production technique of naked mole rats may help prevent brain injuries to oxygen-deprived stroke victims.  This should serve as a reminder of how important all scientific research is.  There’s no telling what crucial applications will arise from even the most off-the-wall examinations.

References:

Omerbašić, D., Smith, E. S. J., Moroni, M., Homfeld, J., Eigenbrod, O., Bennett, N. C., … & Lewin, G. R. (2016). Hypofunctional TrkA accounts for the absence of pain sensitization in the African naked mole-rat. Cell reports, 17(3), 748-758. http://www.cell.com/cell-reports/fulltext/S2211-1247(16)31274-8

Park, T. J., Reznick, J., Peterson, B. L., Blass, G., Omerbašić, D., Bennett, N. C., … & Applegate, D. T. (2017). Fructose-driven glycolysis supports anoxia resistance in the naked mole-rat. Science, 356(6335), 307-311. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/356/6335/307

Jared Peters

Jared Peters

Jared Peters, PhD, is a geoscientist who specialises in marine sedimentology, marine palaeoglaciology and climate change.
Jared Peters
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Jared Peters, PhD, is a geoscientist who specialises in marine sedimentology, marine palaeoglaciology and climate change.