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When oxygen is scarce, naked mole-rats metabolize fructose like plants

21 April 2017

"This is just the latest remarkable discovery about the naked mole-rat - a cold-blooded mammal that lives decades longer than other rodents, rarely gets cancer, and doesn't feel many types of pain", lead researcher Thomas Park, professor of biological sciences at the University of IL at Chicago, said in a news release. "They had more stamina than the researchers". "Because every aspect of naked mole rat biology seems to be unusual and freakish in some way", the scientists add, "it is perhaps not surprising that they have evolved a particular means of tolerating low oxygen conditions".

If scientists could harness this process and apply it humans, it could aid the survival of people who are deprived of oxygen during cardiac crises like heart attacks or strokes.

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"The naked mole-rat has simply rearranged some basic building-blocks of metabolism to make it super-tolerant to low oxygen conditions", Park said in a statement. They're also known to have what Park calls "sticky hemoglobin", which allows them to draw oxygen out of very thin air. They're hairless, ground-dwelling and cold-blooded despite being mammals.

Naked mole-rats, however, have found a way to bypass their oxygen-dependent metabolism. All of these traits suggest that naked mole-rat physiology is geared for being able to survive periods of low oxygen. We had no idea how the naked mole-rat would respond, so we were ready to abort the experiment if things looked bad.

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"After respiration ceased, naked mole-rats were left in 0 percent O² for an additional minute", the study stated.

For other mammals, low oxygen conditions trigger a shutdown of glycolysis. Findings showed that while the mice died in fewer than 15 minutes, the naked mole-rats could survive for five hours. They just drastically reduce their energy needs. They also release fructose into their blood which is carried to the brain and other vital organs.

Further tests found that brains of naked mole-rats metabolized fructose, when brain slices were given fructose but not any other sugar. Mice died in less than a minute.

Fructose can be turned into energy anaerobically - which means it doesn't require the presence of oxygen to be broken down into cellular energy.

When deprived of oxygen, naked mole-rats have a unique ability to convert sugar to energy, a skill that might one day help treat victims of heart attack and stroke, researchers said Thursday.

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What started as research of how naked mole rats are remarkably insensitive to pain, such as the burn felt when lemon juice gets in a human's eye, became a study of how the animals can survive in low oxygen environments. Unlike other subterranean mammals, naked mole-rats live in hyper-crowded conditions, packed in with hundreds of colony mates.

Naked mole rats, who eat nearly exclusively sugary foods like potato root, store fructose - though it's unclear where yet, Park said. A small number of animals digging in random directions would starve before they found one. Now, scientists have discovered another superpower: The animals can survive more than 18 minutes without oxygen. This is particularly true in the nest chambers where many animals gather to eat, groom, and sleep.

Park: We might be able to use the same strategy during times of extreme oxygen deprivation, for example during a heart attack when oxygenated blood can not reach the brain. "If we could activate the fructose pathway, we could significantly extend that time span", he predicts.

Humans have the same transporters and enzymes in the digestive tract but not as many.

What else will we find out about this mammalian champion? Another interesting question is how the naked mole-rats use fructose without experiencing any of the negative effects of fructose such as obesity.

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Naked mole-rats are able to survive for up to five hours without oxygen by effectively turning themselves into plants, it has been revealed.

When oxygen is scarce, naked mole-rats metabolize fructose like plants