Mole-rat 'transformation into plant' offers heart attack hope
It may have missed out on good looks, but the naked mole-rat is once again amazing scientists with its fascinating super-powers.
Although it was known that the little subterranean creatures never develop cancer, and live far longer than similar-sized mammals, researchers have now discovered they can also survive for 18 minutes without oxygen.
What is even more astonishing is how they manage it. The mole-rats effectively become plants, altering their metabolism so that cells are powered by fructose rather than glucose, a process which requires no oxygen.
The unique back-up system completely protects sensitive organs such as the heart and brain.
Scientists believe it may be possible to trigger the same metabolism shift in humans who have suffered heart attacks or strokes, where most of the damage occurs because cells are starved of oxygen, and then die.
"Our work is the first evidence that a mammal switches to fructose as a fuel," said Professor Gary Lewin, of the Max Delbrück Centre of Molecular Medicine in Berlin.
"Patients who suffer an infarction or stroke experience irreparable damage after just a few minutes of oxygen deprivation. Theoretically, very few changes might be needed to adopt this unusual metabolism."
Researchers found that the bodies of naked mole-rats are flooded with molecules and enzymes which allows fructose to be metabolised.
Humans need an atmosphere which has at least 10pc oxygen to survive, but naked mole-rats have evolved to live in stuffy underground burrows in the African desert which can be 24km long, and have little air.
They are also highly social creatures that snuggle together at night for warmth, but can end up nearly suffocating if they are trapped in the middle of a 'mole ball'.
"The naked mole-rat has simply rearranged some basic building-blocks of metabolism to make it super-tolerant to low oxygen conditions," said Thomas Park, professor of biological sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who led the research.
The research was published in the journal 'Science'.