Naked Mole Rats Survive Without Oxygen by Turning Into Plants

by Camille Whisby, Staff Writer

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The naked mole rat (Heterocephalus glaber) looks about like you’d expect — a hairless mole crossed with a hairless rat crossed with the chest-bursting creature from “Alien.” But this subterranean African mammal is by far the longest-living rodent, it’s cold-blooded and immune to cancer, practically impervious to most types of pain, and shows very few signs of aging during its life. Like some insects, they are asocial, meaning a group of them has a queen that takes on all the reproductive responsibilities for the group, while other females are sterile and have jobs like finding food and fending off predators. They also can survive for long periods without oxygen by basically turning into plants.

Wait, what?

A new study published in the journal Science reports that these weirdos can switch from using glucose to power their bodies, to fructose like a plant does. Under normal, oxygen-rich conditions, the naked mole rat runs its cells on glucose like every other self-respecting mammal on the planet. Oxygen is necessary to fuel this process. But in the absence of oxygen, it turns out naked mole rats can switch over to a different biochemical process using fructose, the sugar that powers plants.

Scientists have known for a while that, because they live in large groups in tight, underground spaces where plentiful oxygen supplies aren’t a given like they are above ground, naked mole rats have evolved to withstand shockingly low-oxygen situations. Until now, however, nobody has quantified the extent to which these hideous little wizards can abstain from breathing air. This team of international researchers discovered the little animals can chill for five or more hours at a time in extremely low-oxygen environments, and for up to 18 minutes with no oxygen at all.

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