With a wrinkly, hairless body and four protruding teeth, the naked mole-rat is one of the planet’s most peculiar-looking creatures.
But its oddness is more than skin-deep; the cold-blooded mammal also boasts an arsenal of evolutionary quirks.
It rarely gets cancer, is immune to several types of pain and lives decades longer than other rodents.
And now scientists have uncovered its strangest genetic trait yet – it can survive without oxygen for up to 18 minutes.
According to a groundbreaking study, the subterranean creatures effectively turn into plants when they are deprived of air.
They slow down, their heart and breathing rates drop and their metabolism switches so that brain cells start burning fructose, which can produce energy without oxygen, rather than glucose.
The astonishing transformation relies on a metabolic pathway previously thought to be exclusively found in plants.
“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, a professor of biological science at the University of Illinois, Chicago.
While the rodents can survive without any oxygen for 18 minutes, they can also live for five hours at oxygen levels low enough to kill humans within minutes.
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The rodents are also protected from another lethal low-oxygen condition – a buildup of fluid in the lungs known as pulmonary edema.
The adaptations mean hundreds of the rodents can live together in unventilated tunnels where oxygen is in short supply and high demand.
The researchers now hope the discovery could pave the way for treatments for patients suffering from oxygen deprivation during heart attacks and strokes.
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