They’ve been described as disgusting, freaks of nature, and even sabre-toothed sausages, but beneath the naked mole-rat's questionable surface lies a rodent that utterly fascinates scientists. For an animal about the size of a mouse, it lives for an incredibly long time—sometimes up to 30 years in captivity.
It’s this age-defying ability, thought to be attributable to their apparent immunity to cancer, that interests researchers at Queen Mary University. They’ve been looking at the gene likely to be responsible for this extraordinary anti-cancer power, which is interestingly also associated with their bizarre appearance. The study, published in The Royal Society, discovered that the particular gene mutation in the rats is unique among mammals.
The gene in question is linked to the production of a sugar called hyaluronic acid that gives the mole-rats’ skin and tissue their shape and incredible flexibility. Whilst all mammals have this gene, the naked mole-rat has a mutation in it that causes it to produce larger sugars. It’s thought that this mutation, responsible for the loose nature of their skin, has helped them adapt to living underground in large colonies as it allows them to squeeze past each other and into small tunnels.
However, it’s believed that this particular gene mutation and the sugar it produces, whilst originally evolving as an adaptation to their underground lifestyle, has then been used to fight cancer. The larger sugars are thought to form a tight ‘cage’ around the rats' cells, which prevents them from growing too big, getting out of control and forming tumors.
But this then raises a question: If the naked mole-rats' unique ability to evade cancer is actually a result of adaptations to its burrowing habits, does that mean that other less well-studied species within the mole-rat family also share this talent? It was this question that the researchers set out to answer. And the answer, it appears, is no.
“While naked mole-rats are extreme in many aspects of their biology, we predicted that we would see similar molecular adaptations in the [anti-cancer] gene in other mole-rats and subterranean mammals, yet they remain unique even among other mole-rats within the family,” explained Dr. Chris Faulkes, lead author of the paper.
They found that while all species of mole-rat did have mutations in this gene, none of them had exactly the same ones as the naked mole-rat. The researchers say that during the study, they also identified exactly what changes cause this overproduction of hyaluronic acid, and that this could lead to new research into how it prevents tumor growth.
Top image credit: Kevin McGee/Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0